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Fact Finding for Fiction Writers-Pump Up your Novel

Below is an interview of Geri Spieler by Linda Loveland Reid – for the Redwood Writers Conference April 28, 2012

Geri Spieler – Facts for Fiction

“The most exciting thing about teaching,” Geri Spieler says, “is giving students that Ah Ha! Helping them to that Wow place where they can see how much value and fun there is in research.”

Spieler, a journalist and investigative reporter now working at Stanford, wants to help writers do research to make their details sing. “A reader will go anywhere with you if they trust your facts.”

A researcher long before the Internet, Spieler points out that in today’s world, 60% of what you need is on-line; however, much of it is hidden. She wants to share how writers can locate information that is not only more accurate than what’s available on the surface, but more interesting.   

Reid: I imagine it can be embarrassing to miss a truth.

Spieler:   If you use the wrong weapon, one that was not invented at the time of your story or is not capable of doing what you say it does, it will turn your reader off. The wrong year of an historic event or a famous person turning up who isn’t born yet−these are issues that destroy a writer's credibility.  

Reid: We have Google. Why do we need any other tool?

Spieler: Deeper. That is, the Net is wonderful and fast, but must be used properly. Google is my gateway to the Net. What I teach is how to go much deeper. How do you know if you can trust what you find? I teach “string research,” how to disambiguate, that is, put your question into words the browser recognizes so you can get beyond the junk, into the real sources. It’s important to us sources built by actual people, not just built by search engines.

Reid: Should I use Wikipedia?

Spieler: Yes, but be careful. The problem here is there is no verifying information. Even when an error is corrected, the misinformation remains. You can find verifiable information by going into the “deep-web,” places populated by institutions and experts.

Reid: Deep-Web?

Spieler: It’s critical to understand the difference between “data base” and “search engine.” When you research at the library, you don’t limit yourself to one book; you use many. You need to know how to use more tools; how to get there; how to find those tools.

Reid: What do traditional publishers look for in historical fiction or non-fiction works?

Spieler: Publishers want to know where you got your facts. The agent reading the book cares. They will ask the questions. You want to have relevant answers. The problem with the Net is it makes us sloppy. We go to the Net first. My technique includes first organizing what you want from the search; then go on line. There are many things to consider. You can use links and websites, but what if a URL you depended on expires? You need to keep clear records.

Reid: How did you get to be a research expert?

Spieler: As a reporter, I became a Badger, would not let go until I had all the facts. This skill led to my working with various newspapers and finally a global company as an analyst where I became the Research Director. I left to write a book involving the FBI and police records. This book is in universities as an example of good research; on how to do solid work.

Reid: What is the most exciting experience you’ve had as writer?

Spieler: Creative non-fiction! I wrote a factual story into a novel, Capote style. Very difficult. I began by taking creative writing classes. “You can make up nothing!” my agent told me. “A story has a lot more power when it’s true.

Reid: What do you see in the future for research, the trends?

Spieler: People are taking control of their writing, which is terrific but which also means they are not going through the rigor of the editorial process, of a publisher checking facts. It’s your job to be that editor. Growth of the self-publication industry offers great opportunity, but writers need to be even more careful. You can be lazy but, a well-researched book shows respect for your audience.

Reid: There’s a rumor out there that research is a dry subject?

Spieler: No! It’s a game! Everybody likes a good mystery. It’s shocking what you can find out!  The more you find, the more you realize, wow, I never thought about that in this way before. It expands your mind and, consequently, your story. 

Geri Spieler will be giving a session at the Redwood Writers April 28 Conference in Santa Rosa, California:  Facts for Fiction Writers−Research Secrets Everyone Should Know.


Geri Spieler – Bio
Geri Spieler is a journalist and investigative reporter. Her specialty is to take the buzz on the streets and turn it into investigative stories that are not being covered anywhere else.

She has reported for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Forbes. She was the founder and editor of Electronic Commerce News, a technology journal published by Phillips Business Information, which led to an eight-year assignment as a Research Director and Analyst for the Gartner Group, an international technology advising company. Geri is also a book reviewer for the New York Journal of Books, an official blogger for the Huffington Post, a member of National Book Critics Circle, member of the Internet Society, author with Red Room and a senior writer with Ezine Magazine.

 In her capacity as a reporter, she met and corresponded with the would-be assassin Sara Jane Moore. Palgrave Macmillan published her four time award-winning book, Taking Aim at the President: The Remarkable Story of the Woman who Shot Gerald Ford, Jan. 2009. Sundance Film director Robinson Devore is making a documentary film about Sara Jane Moore's life.

Geri graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles with a degree in English. She is former president of the San Francisco/Peninsula Branch of California Writers Club, conference director of the Jack London Writers Conference and board member of NorCal, a consortium of Northern California Writers Club consortium.

Currently she is research associate at Stanford University.    www.gerispieler.com