I recently read an interview with Jodi Picoult in which she says she acts out mock trials with an attorney before she writes the legal parts of her books. They go through all the examinations that might occur in the courtrooms of her books, so that when she sits down to write, that part of the book basically writes itself.
On the other hand, John Grisham, who is himself a lawyer, wrote at the end of his book King of Torts, that he makes up much of the locations in his books. He doesn't scour the restaurants and streets of D.C. to make sure his book is entirely geographically accurate. Some creative license, he insists, is needed to make the story go where it needs to go, and certain things just shouldn't be limited by reality.
I understand these two things are entirely different. One is legal and one is descriptive. But it begs the question: how much in a fiction book should be reality?
As I write Some Kind of Normal, I am currently mulling this issue as I flesh out the clinical trial that Ashley will undergo. I am not a doctor, or a lawyer (although I am the daughter of one, so having that access is nice). All I have on my side is an internet full of legal jargon and clinical trials that I have to mold to my own purposes. How much about stem cell research and replacement and the moral and ethical legalities and processes of clinical trials do I need to know to be able to write? How accurate does a reader expect the writing to be?
I already know way more than will be in the book, because I don't want the book to be full of legal and medical jargon. I'm not John Grisham, or Michael Crichton (who was a doctor) or Tom Clancy.... my knowledge wouldn't hold up under the type of scrutiny that professing knowledge incurs. But I do wonder how much is necessary to make it look like I know what I'm writing about, and how much makes it look like I'm showing off - namely my ignorance.
I recently read Jodi Picoult's book Vanishing Acts. She obviously did her research on prison life and making meth. Personally, more than I considered necessary. I found myself skipping the longer paragraphs that detailed how to make meth in a homemade lab because it didn't really add to the story, and I don't care how to make meth. To say the main character became involved in this process and that, as a pharmacist in a former life he had this knowledge, was enough for me.
Would it have been enough for you? How much research do you expect to see in a fiction book? If a writer only skims the surface of what is complicated medical or legal or technical aspects, do you think they don't know their stuff? And if they get too deep into it, do you think they are showing off? And more importantly, do you really read it?