At the very least, please do basic research on the elements of your story. It will save both you and your editor time and possible migraines. For example, one author I worked with had a scene pertaining to a heart transplant. A doctor intended to pretend he was going to perform the transplant until the patient was unconscious, and then not do it. (Don’t ask, it would take a long explanation, and I’m trying to stay away from as many specifics as I can for the sake of anonymity.) Now, I’m not a transplant surgeon, nor do I play one on TV, but I knew this scene was not right at all. What the doctor was doing to convince the patient a transplant was about to occur brought me to a halt. I felt there was a major misconception in the scene, as well as elements that could have proven fatal for a real transplant patient.
I stopped edits and spent quite some time doing online research, and I called an area hospital with a CCU (Cardiac Care Unit). If someone there couldn’t help me, my next call was going to a hospital in Atlanta. Thankfully, I happened to get someone who had assisted in many transplants. I explained why I was calling and asked if he had a few minutes to spare for a couple of questions, or if there was a better time for me to call. I’m certain he was a little bemused, but he was kind enough to answer my questions and I thanked him for his time. Let me go ahead and say this. When conducting research, it’s always better to try to be as unobtrusive as possible, so if you don’t know someone in the field you need to research, and if you can’t make an appointment for a phone interview, sending an email or letter would probably be best. I don’t recommend cold-calling like I did, but I was working against a deadline. Cold-calling could bring you together with someone who’s having a really bad day, or who’s extremely busy when you call. Neither bodes well for your research.
After the combination of online research and my phone call for verification, I had some very definitive answers for my concerns and I was able to help the author correct the scene. And yes, I was correct about the things that troubled me the most.
“But wait!” you say. “If the readers knew the doctor wasn’t going to perform the transplant, why would you even bother with the research?”
That’s a good question with a simple answer. Remember the patient thought the doctor was going to perform the operation? Well, the patient was also smart enough that the same things I was concerned about would have alerted them to the fact the doctor didn’t intend to do it at all. The scene had to look good and be realistic for the patient. Since the readers would know that this had to look real for the patient, they would be looking at how well the doctor was covering his behind. You don’t want a reader who just happens to be a member of a transplant team to send you a letter saying, “The doctor would have never done that. You need to do your research next time!”
Research glitches can happen in many areas, but I often see it in medical, law enforcement, military, forensics, and legal aspects of a manuscript. I've seen:
Medals pinned on the wrong side of a uniform.
Period pieces where words that didn't exist for a hundred years or more after the story's time period were used.
Legal jargon used improperly.
Wines served in ways they would never be served in a fine restaurant.
Complications from medical procedures and injuries that made no sense whatsoever, or that were completely impossible.
Characters accessing files they shouldn't be able to access, from places they logically shouldn't be able to access them, and which would have gotten an innocent family member fired from their job, given them a hefty fine, and possibly put them in jail.
Do your research. Don’t give your reader the details unless you absolutely have to because it’s integral to the story. While it’s possible as much as ninety-nine percent of what you learn will never crawl out of your head or your notes, your scene must still be written with that research in mind. It helps lend your scene the credibility and accuracy it needs to breathe for the readers. I'm a stickler for research. I could go on with other examples where it made the scene, and instances where scenes had to be rewritten because not enough preliminary research was done, but this post is probably too long already. Just remember, research is important, whether it’s a minor aspect or a major one.