I just finished reading a very good novel (in my opinion) that illustrated the value of doing solid research. The writer is Stephen Hunter and the book is “Havana: an Earl Swagger Novel.” If you read adventure/mystery/suspense novels much you may have read it, or at least read others by Hunter involving Earl Swagger and his son, Bob Lee Swagger. (I highly recommend any novel by Stephen Hunter.)
The novel is set in 1953 Havana, Cuba, and is a masterful blend of fact and ficiton surrounding Fidel Castro, the Mafia, the CIA, and the Soviet Union. The “afterword” to the novel is a wonderful description by Hunter of the research he did, traveling to Havana and interviewing people there. He makes mention of using an old 1960s movie, “Our Man in Havana,” as resource material to get the look and feel of 1950s Cuba right.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts here, writing fiction has a great advantage in one sense — it is essentially telling lies. If you don’t know something when you’re working on a novel, you can “make it up as you go along,” usually. But at the heart of all good novels lies serious research to give the story realism. So obviously good research put together in good fashion will produce more realism in the novel than a simple, sloppy approach to just making it all up as you go along.
A good book is the right blend of solid research and creative “faking it” by the writer. But do the good research first, then you’ll know what you can get away with faking it.