I recently began reading a murder mystery where the author used a mushroom to kill the first victim. That’s where this book fell apart—the idea was good, but the facts and execution weren’t.
Using a mushroom stroganoff to poison him was a poor choice because fungi is an undependable weapon unless you are an expert. Also, individually, one mushroom may be more or less poisonous than another of the same kind, rather like people are. Judging how many one would need to kill a three-hundred-pound man takes more thought than I am capable of plotting out.
Also, it was stroganoff, which is basically beef and mushrooms in a sour cream sauce. This author danced over the fact that serving the food at this dinner party would have been a tactical nightmare. It would have been nearly impossible to ensure the intended victim got the poison mushrooms and no one else did, which is how this murder was written.
Agatha Christie knew that and regularly poisoned entire dinner parties, literarily speaking. Her murderers made everyone at the table sick but only the intended victim actually died.
This particular mystery was set in Scotland, and I don’t know how poisonous their mushrooms are, but I think that logic would hold true there as well as it does here in the Pacific Northwest.
If I hadn’t been on several nature walks with Ellen King Rice, a wildlife biologist and amateur mycologist who writes well-plotted mushroom thrillers, I would have accepted the slightly contrived fatal dinner as written and focused on the other failings of this novel.
This experience reinforced my belief that readers are often more knowledgeable than we authors are. E-readers can do the research just by highlighting the word and hitting search.
For this reason, having a solid base of information to back up what we are writing is critical.
My disappointment as a reader could have been avoided if the author had gone out to several mushroom hunter websites or even if she had found a local person to talk with. With only a small amount of effort, she could have made her plot a little less flimsy.
Targeted research is essential if you want your fiction to convey a feeling of truth. Identify what you want to know, use the internet, ask an expert, and create a searchable file or database of information that backs up your assertions.
Once you establish the technological era you are writing in, you know what you need to research and how theoretical you may have to get.
Here are some of my go-to sources of information:
If you seek information about low-tech societies (the past) :
My best source of information on low-tech agrarian (farm) life and culture comes from a book I found at a second-hand book store in Olympia in the mid-to-late-1980s. Lost Country Life by Dorothy Hartley is still available as a second-hand book and can be found on Amazon. This textbook was meticulously researched and illustrated by a historian who personally knew the people she wrote about.
I also find a lot of information on how people lived from Wikimedia Commons. Under the heading Category: Painters from the Northern Netherlands (before 1830), you will find the brilliant works of the Dutch Masters, artists living in what is now The Netherlands.
These painters created accurate records of ordinary people going about everyday life. Their genre art depicts how they dressed, and what was important to them.
Talk to police, talk to doctors, talk to lawyers–many are willing to help you with your quest for accuracy about their professions. Also, you can Google just about anything. Fads, fashion, phone tech, current robotics tech, automobile tech—it’s all out there.
Looking things up on the internet can suck up an enormous amount of your writing time. Do yourself a favor and bookmark your resources so all you have to do is click on a link to get the information you want. Then you can quickly get back to writing.
Resources to bookmark in general:
www.Thesaurus.Com (What’s another word that means the same as this but isn’t repetitive?)
Oxford Dictionary (What does this word mean? Am I using it correctly?)
Wikipedia (The font of all knowledge. I did not know that.)
TED Talks are a fantastic resource for information on current and cutting edge technology.
ZDNet Innovation is an excellent source of current tech and future tech that may become current in 25 years.
Tech Times is also a great source of ideas.
Nerds on Earth has useful information about swords and how they were used historically.
If you want to know what interests the people in the many different layers of our society, go to the magazine rack at your grocery store or the local Big Name Bookstore, and look at the many publications available to the reading public. You can find everything from mushroom hunting, to culinary, to survivalist, to organic gardening. If people are interested in it, there is a magazine for it.
We can only extrapolate how societies will look in the future by taking what we know is possible today and mixing it with a heavy dose of what we wish were possible.
If you write sci-fi, you must read sci-fi as that is where the ideas are. Much of what was considered highly futuristic in the era of classic science fiction is today’s current tech.
Ion drive, space stations—these are our reality but were only a dream when science fiction was in its infancy.
Think about it: your Star Trek communicator is never far from your side, and your teenagers won’t put theirs down long enough to eat dinner.
MAPS: If you are writing a story set in our real world and your characters will be traveling, walking a particular city, or visiting landmarks, bookmark google maps for that area and refer back to it regularly to make sure you are writing it correctly.
USE GOOGLE EARTH!
If you are writing about a fantasy world and your characters will be traveling, quickly sketch a rough map. Refer back to it to ensure the town names and places remain the same from the first page to the last. Update it as new locations are added.
Do the right research, target it to your needs, and don’t allow yourself to be sidetracked by the many bunny trails that lead you away from actually writing. And for the love of Agatha Christie, make sure your literary murders are done in a way that doesn’t fly in the face of logic.
Credits and Attributions:
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Jan Steen, Dutch (active Leiden, Haarlem, and The Hague) – Rhetoricians at a Window – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Jan_Steen,_Dutch_(active_Leiden,_Haarlem,_and_The_Hague)_-_Rhetoricians_at_a_Window_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=355150081 (accessed September 10, 2020).