A Necessary Evil

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Research is an integral part of writing, even in fiction. When you’re an author, you’ve got to get it right. Some readers take insane glee in pointing out gaffes and discrepancies. Have your ancient Roman characters drinking tea, your Elizabethans using the word “clitoris”, your Dom swinging a cane made of bamboo (I’ve been pointedly informed that bamboo is too brittle for a cane and that rattan is the preferred material), and you may find yourself ridiculed throughout the blogosphere. Even a more forgiving reader can be distracted from your story by some detail that just doesn’t fit. Every author’s goal is to build a fictional world in which readers can happily lose themselves. To the extent that this world is inconsistent or unbelievable, the author will fail.

If you write only about characters who share your class, ethnicity and culture, or if you set your stories in a non-specific contemporary locale, you may not need to do much research. However, this can get pretty boring (for both readers and the author).

Thinking about my own work, I find that there are four situations that dictate the need for research.

Geographic or location-oriented research: When I’m setting a story in a specific location (as I usually do), I often research landmarks, place names, or spatial relationships. I don’t need to give my readers a map, but I may need one myself in order to write convincingly.

Cultural research: If my characters are something other than white, western, and well-educated, I need to check on things like vocabulary, slang and tone. I also need to understand the characters’ assumptions, the way they look at the world and how that is different from my own perspective.

Sexual research: There are many sexual practices that I haven’t personally tried (though you might not think that from some of my stories!). In erotica, it is especially important to research the details of the fetish or sexual subculture you are describing. I’ve read many BDSM stories that struck me as ridiculous rather than arousing because the practices described were inaccurate and reflected a lack of research on the part of the author.

Historical research: Writing in a period other than the present probably requires the most intensive research activity. Every aspect of life depends on the historical period, from costumes, food, transportation and economics to language and world view.

Some authors adore doing research. I gather that for some authors, research actually distracts them from the writing process. They get pulled deeper and deeper into the worlds they are exploring, searching for the next level of detail, putting off writing as they gather knowledge that they might not ever use.

Personally I view research as something of a necessary evil. I’ll spend the time I need to answer my questions, but I am always eager to get back to the story itself. I have observed that too much research carries risks—the author feels compelled to use all the nifty information she has uncovered, and ultimately, this distracts from the story. Normally, I’ll let the story itself drive my research activity. Before I begin, I’ll spend some time reading about the period, the people or the practices on which I’m focusing, but then I’ll stop, only returning to my search when I have a question.

Geographic research is fairly straightforward, given the resources on the Internet. I also have two shelves full of travel guidebooks which I use extensively. I’m fortunate in that I’ve traveled quite a lot. Frequently I’ll set a story in a city or country that I’ve visited. Even so, I will often need to check on details. My short story “Prey” (in my paranormal collection Fourth World) is set in Prague, but I wrote it nearly ten years after I visited that wondrous city. I spent quite a lot of time poring over maps and trying to reconcile them with my recollections. At the Margins of Madness takes place in Worcester, Massachusetts and its environs. I lived in central Massachusetts for more than twenty years, but after a decade in Asia, I found that I need to jog my memory. Of course, if a tale is set somewhere that I’ve never visited, like Guatemala (Serpent’s Kiss) or Assam, India (Monsoon Fever), I have to rely entirely on external information, supplemented by analogy with places I have been.

Cultural research is particularly tough for me. Not foreign cultures—if I’ve visited a place, I usually have at least a rudimentary sense of the people and how they communicate. But in capturing the subtleties of other western subcultures, I have problems. The American South, for instance, has a particular flavor of discourse. Likewise the American West. I’ve tried to write criminals and mafia and stuttered badly. One difficulty is the fact that you can’t search directly for the kind of cultural markers that make a character seem genuine. The best way to pick them up is to actually meet an individual from that culture. The second best method is to read other people’s work featuring characters from the same subculture.

Sexual research is always fun, and not too much of problem. The ‘Net overflows with didactic material on various fetishes as well as content that can serve as exemplars. My story “Body Electric”, in Bound and Breathless, features electric play, which I’ve never personally experienced. I had no trouble finding information on electric toys and the effects that they produce. Even my BDSM critic (the one who chided me over the bamboo cane) did not find fault with the result!

Historical research, of course, can go on forever. About a third of my novel Incognito takes place in Victorian Boston. The physical environment was fairly easy; I had lived in Beacon Hill, which actually hasn’t changed much since that period. However, I spent considerable time, effort and money researching costumes (Victorian clothing was extremely complex, with lots of special vocabulary), transportation, and the differences between social classes. I also read up on Victorian erotica, which was the subject of my heroine Miranda’s dissertation, using Steven Marcus’ encyclopedic though annoying tome The Other Victorians.

Even a historical short story requires an inordinate amount of work. A Midsummer Night’s Gender Bending, set in Shakespeare’s London, took me nearly twice as long to write as a normal story, because I was working so hard to be true to the period. After all that effort, my editor still picked up a variety of words that were too modern for Elizabethan times. (I was extremely impressed.)

It’s tough to get the facts right. Unfortunately, even if you do, that may not be enough. To accomplish the objective of creating a compelling, believable fictional world, an author needs more than a raft of detail. It’s critical to have what I can only call a “feel” for that world—an intuitive sense of how it works and how its denizens think, feel and behave.

It’s never possible to answer every research question. Sometimes I have to rely on imagination. But this only works if I can understand the people and places I am trying to portray, at a gut level. How do you acquire this sort of intuition? You won’t find it on Google. For me, building a rich, nuanced picture of the world where I’m setting my story requires more personal experience. Reading original sources, including fiction, from a period can help. Visiting a museum or the actual site is a possibility. Ultimately, though, I find the process a bit mysterious.

Sometimes no amount of research will help. A number of years ago I visited the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. During the twelfth century, the city of Angkor had more than a million inhabitants. It was the largest settlement in the world. I was fascinated by the civilization that had built such impressive monuments, only to disintegrate back into a village culture, and I had an idea for a time-slip erotic romance set partially during that period.

I set about reading everything I could find about Cambodia and Angkor. I spent lots of money on books. I went to museums. I scoured the Web. Somehow, the intuitive sense of those people eluded me. I just couldn’t picture them, understand who they were and how they thought. I could look up all the historical details in the many books I bought, but my imagination remained bone dry. I’ve shelved the project for the moment, hoping that at some point I’ll have some experience that triggers the sort of comprehension and empathy that I need to be able to proceed.

Research the facts. That’s the starting point, sure. But developing a sense of your world, to the point where you can trust your guesses—that’s far more difficult. Ultimately, it’s a kind of magic. Like creating stories in the first place.

(Note: for details on all the books mentioned in this post, please visit my website:

Researching Stories, Or I Wonder How Big The FBI’s File On Me Is

I often joke that considering my Google search history for writing research purposes, the FBI must have a massive file on me. I’m surprised I don’t get Pornhub spam in my email box. Here are some examples of my more amusing searches:

  1. What is the Altoids blow job myth?
  2. When is Steak and BJ day?
  3. Bigfoot erotica
  4. Cuckold fetish
  5. How to do pegging
  6. Lactation erotica

Research is an important part of a writer’s life. There are many ways to do research that will help you write a good book or short story. I read books on the subject matter I am studying. I also talk to people who are knowledgeable on a subject I am researching. For example, when I wanted to conduct an interview with Sexologist Dr. Petra Boynton to learn more about women’s sexuality, I contacted her directly. When I was writing an article about writers and jealousy, I posted on Facebook asking my friends for their own personal experiences with the green monster. I heard from plenty of people. Not only did I get good articles out of talking directly to people, I learned a few new things. It’s very beneficial to reach outside your own head and talk to others.

With Google at my fingertips, there is very little I cannot find online. Any time I have a question or concern about sex, erotic writing, and romance, I go to Google. It does take some doing to separate the wheat from the chaff, but I invariably find what I’m looking for. I used to write for Sexis Magazine and the U. K. publication nuts4chic. My articles ran the gamut of topics from men faking orgasms to hotel sex. I often relied on breaking and weird news stories to inspire my articles. The fallout from these searches has been both infuriating and humorous.

My privacy has been invaded on numerous occasions. I’m sure readers have experienced searching for something on Google – say, erotic shaving – and then find their Facebook feeds full of ads for razors. Social media spies on us. I find that to be a bit disconcerting but it’s a fact of life and I can’t avoid it. The purpose of social media is not to help connect us with friends and family but to send our information to advertisers who will spam our email boxes with junk. My Amazon, Google, and Facebook searches and commentary influence the kinds of ads Facebook tosses my way.

I’m sure writers reading this article have experienced Amazon recommending their own books for them to purchase. Same here. What you search for on Amazon influences what the behemoth store will recommend for you to buy. I’ve searched for big boob erotica for many of my stories and I’m inundated with bra ads. I figure if I’m going to be spammed I’d might as well make it worthwhile so I’ve searched for things like teabagging, cybersex, which states ban the sale of sex toys, hospital sex toy horror stories, and more. My inbox is… entertaining.

I’ll continue to conduct my writing research as I see fit. I just have to get used to my inbox being full of spam about bondage harnesses, the latest erotica awards, and singles groups for older people. I’ve added my email to the government’s no spam list but they somehow still find me. Despite the annoyance, I will find information I need on a wide variety of erotic topics that are necessary for my fiction writing. And I’ll have fun doing it.


Elizabeth Black writes in a wide variety of genres including erotica, erotic romance, horror, and dark fiction. She lives on the Massachusetts coast with her husband, son, and her three cats. Coming in September, 2019 – her story “The Beautiful Moves in Curves” will appear in “Dangerous Curves Ahead”, an anthology of sexy stories about plus-sized women. Look for it at Amazon.

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Gone Researchin'

So, as this post goes live I’m actually out of the country. In Paris, France, one of my very favourite places on earth… so far 😉

I’ve gone researchin’. For some reason, ever since my very first visit to Paris back in 2010, I found it beautiful, fascinating, interesting and inspirational. Since then, it’s spawned several stories which have been set there, all very different and all so much fun to write. And yet, I’m not done! One of those tales has been begging for a long time to be extended into a novel, but my hands were tied due to a shitty publisher, who shall remain nameless. Since then, I’m glad to say the publisher is no more (yeah, seriously, they were that bad), so I have the rights to that short story and the characters back, and I can work on the novel. I’m really looking forward to it because I love the story, the plot and the fact that my crazy little brain actually figured out this could be turned into a series. It’s been languishing for too long, and I’m hoping that another research trip to Paris will inspire me all over again and I’ll be bubbling over with ideas, new settings and enthusiasm for the project 🙂

Happy Reading!

Lucy x


Lucy Felthouse is a very busy woman! She writes erotica and
erotic romance in a variety of subgenres and pairings, and has over 100
publications to her name, with many more in the pipeline. These include several
editions of Best Bondage Erotica, Best Women’s Erotica 2013 and Best Erotic
Romance 2014. Another string to her bow is editing, and she has edited and
co-edited a number of anthologies, and also edits for a small publishing house.
She owns Erotica For All, is book
editor for Cliterati, and is one eighth
of The Brit Babes. Find out more
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