Do Your Research

>> Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Now, I'll admit, I love research. History, science, engineering, psychology, medicine, weaponry, architecture, I love it all. I love to find out stuff. It's great. One of the good things about loving to learn and writing is that one fits tidily into the other.

Ironically, since I mostly write fantasy and science fiction, I need very little for my writing. Having said that, if I use science, it's sound. If I describe weapons, I can visualize the weapon and know how it's used (if I haven't used it myself). I understand the basics of combat. I understand geography and geology. If I have armor, I know what type it is and its limitations.


Because nothing yanks you out of a story like stumbling across something that's patently untrue. Even fantasy. Definitely science fiction. Absolutely history. If you write a novel set in the past, you'd better know your period and well. Know the clothing and the terminology, the customs and mores. Knowing historical facts is not enough.

Now, a writer could say, oh, well, what are the odds. . .

Well, see, readers know the darnedest things, particularly voracious readers. What's more, the same people prone to read fantasy are the ones most likely to know weaponry and terms and magical mores. People reading science fiction probably know more than their fair share of at least basic science. These are the folks you want to read more of your books. Yanking them out of your story, however clever it is, with mistakes that a little research could prevent is not a good way to build an audience.

Heck, I closed the door on Tom Clancy not two chapters into Patriot Games because he had a fact (with no real purpose I could see) wrong and I happened to know it off the top of my head. Also the book was bothering me, but that's another story. Haven't been tempted to read him since. Note, however, that he's managed to be successful without me. But it's not the sort of thing one can count on.

Of course, to minimize your research, if it doesn't give you the same thrill it does me, you can keep things general, no specifics, no details. Still, many readers are put off by the lack. But, in my opinion, better to keep it vague than to fill the book with glaringly inaccurate details that set the knowing's teeth on edge.

Take a few minutes. If you don't know if the word "allergic" existed in Regency England, look it up. You can find that data (Dictionary says it became part of the language in 1910, so no). If you think you can have a geostationary satellite hovering over the north pole, look up orbital mechanics (you can't). You want to use nuclear fuel in your space ship? Make sure you have a good cooling system and the right fuel.


  • The Mother

    Pet peeve.

    I love thrillers, but so many play fast and loose with science (or should we say pseudoscience?) that I often lose faith.

    The real world is so damn interesting, that I really don't understand.

  • Stephanie Barr

    I have the same problem with science fiction. When people shoot guns out of open portholes or the engines cut out and the ship just "stops", I have to shake my head.

    That ain't how it works.

  • Project Savior

    Funny that you wrote about this, I was planning to write about it today as well.
    One thing that good research does is make a horror story scarier. If you've done all the research into how a scary something could really happen, it gives the reader the creeps as they are reading. As opposed to having them suspend their disbelieve.

  • The Mother

    What?? You mean space ships don't just STOP???

  • Phyl

    I love this, Stephanie. (Why didn't I know about this blog before??)

    I remember when I first started writing my own fantasy novels, reading some advice about how even in fantasy, you couldn't just have any old thing happen whenever you wanted it to. Even if the rules in your world are somewhat different from the rules in this world, whatever you write has to be consistent with those rules. So you can't just stick something in that wouldn't happen in that world if you're following the rules (physics, magic, etc) that you've set out for it.

    That was some of the best advice I ever got. But yes, you also need to be sure that the laws of gravity etc aren't contradicted in any world, unless you've got a plausible mechanism to accomplish the contradiction.

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