Do Your Homework

Harbor_Fwy_One of the reasons why writing fantasy appealed to me many years ago was because I was under the delusion that fantasy writers didn’t have to do any research. Since those days, I’ve learned that (1) fantasy writers aren’t immune to the need to do research and (2) research these days is pretty quick and easy.

As I’ve learned more about writing fiction, I’ve discovered that we all must do some measure of research. Contemporary writers, for example, need to research the places, professions, and devices they include in their stories.

Some years ago I read a novel set in the Los Angeles area–near where I live. At one point there was a car-chase scene that took the protagonist onto a freeway with which I was quite familiar. Sadly, the author didn’t paint the details anywhere near the way they actually are. As I read, I started yelling at the book: A sidewalk? There’s no sidewalk there. Pedestrians? No one who wants to keep living would walk along that freeway. And he wants us to believe there are dozens of people? Paa-leeeze!

Clearly, the inaccurate description of the area pulled me out of the story. Of course, not everyone knows the specifics about an area, but careless handling of the particulars is bound to stand out to any local residents who read the story.

The same is true of activities and events. I read another contemporary novel that featured a basketball player–a professional whose team made it to the NBA finals. The problem was, the author hadn’t done her homework, apparently, and didn’t know that the format for the finals is different from the early rounds. Consequently, the team with the best record opens the seven-game series at home for the first two games. They then move to the lower seed’s home for the next three games before returning, if necessary, to the home of the higher seed. So this author had her protagonist playing games five and six in the wrong cities.

Does it matter? For writers who want readers to immerse themselves in the fictive dream, yes, it should matter. Inaccuracies pull readers out of the story.

Mysteries, military thrillers, suspense, even contemporary romances all have similar requirements when it comes to getting the details right.

Writers of historical fiction or of history or memoirs, for that matter, have an even greater burden. They need to know the details of a place but also the details of the time period in which they’re writing if they are to avoid anachronisms. Hence, they must be sure their character actually could be listening to the radio or talking on the phone–that those things had been invented and were in common use. They must be sure that Benny Goodman had become a national figure, that cars had starters instead of cranks, that bifocals existed.

Again, some might question whether these details are important. My guess is, those who read historical fiction, and surely those who read history or memoirs, are already familiar with the time period in which the story or events are taking place. Consequently, these readers will quickly recognize mistakes. The credibility of the author is undermined with each error. The seriousness of the work comes into question.

Hard science fiction carries a similar stringent requirement. The science needs to be accurate and the futuristic suppositions tied to what already exists. Consequently, the writer needs to know about that science.

Big_Cypress_National_Preserve_swampWhich brings me back to fantasy. Aren’t the worlds pretty much all imagined? They are. And yet, a swamp must still have the properties of a swamp and a desert, those of a desert. Otherwise, there is no swamp. There’s a new thing that requires a new name with a description of its hybrid properties.

An author is absolutely free to make up a swamp in the middle of the desert–if he can make it plausible and if he is consistent with its use. Certain conditions can’t create a swamdirt, for instance, in one location and a wilderness in a different location. The conditions would have to be different and the author needs to keep track of which elements create which geological feature.

The key to good fantasy, then, is consistency. The real “research” is nothing more than keeping track of the rules of the imagined world. But that, too, my friends, is homework, and it needs to be done.

Fortunately in this age of the Internet, research is easier than ever. I’ve had a variety of magazine article assignments over the years, most on subjects with which I had little first hand knowledge. A few hours on the Internet, however, and I have learned as much or more as I might from an afternoon in the library.

Of course Internet research comes with a few cautions. First, not all information is accurate. Some is intentionally misleading if the subject is controversial–the author may be using the old tricks of indoctrination, such as the use of emotionally charged words, the exclusion of some facts, and the exaggeration of others.

Some information on the Internet is incomplete or lacking supporting data. Consequently, it might be true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far.

And thirdly, some Internet research uncovers facts that are flat out wrong. Perhaps the source is misinformed or ill equipped to present information on the topic.

The point is, a writer needs to verify Internet research or to check the reliability of the source. For instance, in doing research for an article about Victorian homes, I discovered a collection of sites saying much the same thing about restoration methods. The quantity served as a good check, but so did the credentials of the site writers–all owners of Victorian homes who were involved with renovations or had already completed them.

Homework. It’s the best kept secret of good writing–fiction and non-fiction. Writers who do their homework can separate themselves from the crowd.



Filed under Research

10 responses to “Do Your Homework

  1. A blacksmith saved me from an embarrassing mistake in a scene in my fantasy novel. It gave him a laugh, but it made the dialogue real, and let my fictional smith appear to know what he was doing.

  2. I’m always taken aback when I encounter the idea that authors of fantasy don’t have to do research. With historical fiction, and any other fiction set entirely in “the real world,” at least there’s a “reference implementation” (as the computer scientist in me would put it). To use your example of Victorian homes: at least there are such things, and at least in theory one can go and tour one to find out anything one needs to know to write convincingly about them. And in some “hard science fiction” the author can work through the necessary mathematics, physics, chemistry, etc., problems to check his work.

    Once one steps into firmly speculative fiction (I say “firmly” because historical fiction can require an author to fill in the gaps where the necessary knowledge has been lost or otherwise isn’t available to him or her), each choice the author makes has innumerable consequences—“And all for the want of a horseshoe nail” to the Nth degree. Either the author “does his homework,” or alert readers will notice discrepancies.

    I have two tendencies, as a writer and worldbuilder, that I need to be alert to and wary of: to put off the actual writing until the worldbuilding is “right” (a thankless and impossible task, especially as the world grows in the telling …), and to focus my attention on the areas of worldbuilding that feel most “interesting,” to the neglect of the rest.

  3. I know about being pulled from the story, Rebecca. I remember reading a multi-published author’s work (women’s fiction) to see what all the fuss was about, a book supposedly edited by one of the Big Six editors, in which she featured a sailor who did things with his sails, the wind, and his boat that could never have happened. That tarnished her work for me–because if she couldn’t research something as accessible as sailing (there are a LOT of us out here), what else had she fudged?

  4. Great caution, Jonathan–either making a fantasy world “right” by working on it forever, or focusing on one aspect to the exclusion of others.

    I appreciate the comment!


  5. How great that he read the scene before you published! I do think having knowledgeable people as beta readers would be a great way to go. I suspect some writers are on deadline and just don’t schedule in time for such. Too bad.


  6. Ha! Getting something about sailing wrong wouldn’t get past you, Normandie! And that’s just it. We don’t all know about all these things–I wouldn’t catch the blacksmith mistake Keanan mentioned in his comment or the sailing ones you picked up on, but there’s some reader or some group of readers out there who will. It’s for them that authors need to take the time to do the research!


  7. seule771

    Perhaps research is not done or done sparingly so they don’t have to cite…for sourcing purpose. It is after-all to be left to one’s imagination. Oh well, true enough. I concur research is necessary. Thank you for sharing.

  8. I agree that some might want to purposefully leave some things to the readers’ imaginations, but the problem lies when the writer gets the details wrong. Then those who know what the place should look like or how the play-offs work what what the sailor should do next will inevitably be pulled from the story. That’s want we want to avoid.

    Non-fiction writers might want to stay away from having to cite their source, but I’d think they would weaken their argument or explanation if it is too sparse. Better to do the work. 😉

    I appreciate your comment.


  9. Pingback: Research For Fantasy Writers | Dust 2 Diamonds

  10. Pingback: Fantasy Writers And Research | Nancy Faltermeier

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