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October 9, 2010

The facts beneath the fiction

New River Gorge Bridge, West Virginia, USA.Image via Wikipedia
New River Gorge Bridge, West Virginia
 Research is an important tool for the writer. It can help you breathe life into your work, evoke a particular time or place, and add complexity to both your characters and settings.

Of course, it's worth remembering that all the research in the world does not a novel make. It's possible to fall into the trap of researching too much, and ending up with writing which is fact-heavy and lifeless. The aim is always to use what you've gleaned from research judiciously in your writing to enrich and enhance the reader's experience - not to beat them over the head with how clever you are.


The kind of writing areas which appeal to me have often called for research. Sometimes alot, to get a complete picture of the historical and cultural makeup of a particular place at a particular time. Sometimes just a little, to add regional flavour or authenticity.

As I have a background in history and modern languages, I like the linguistic and cultural richness that awareness of these can add to a creative project. Research is something I enjoy, and I like knowing I've put my best endeavours towards getting something right, even though I write fiction. I think people subconsciously learn a great deal from books, fiction as much as non-fiction, so it's my job as a writer to be accurate when I'm writing about the real world.

In writing my last novel, I made extensive use of the internet (particularly that fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia) and Google maps to give me a feeling for places and things I had no prior knowledge of. Among other things I researched lunar astrology, tarot and palmistry, locations in West Virginia and the New England region of USA, the workings of unpowered gliders, indigenous wild animals, trees and birds of continental United States, hydrogen cyanide, blood chemistry, and much much more. Hopefully it'll all add richness and texture to my writing...and at the very least, I'll know that (to the best of my knowledge) what I've written is accurate.

Of course, researching cyanide, explosives and poison gases may also land me on some terrorist watch lists, but hopefully they'll let me off after they read my novel.

Do you do all your research first, and write later...or do you only stop to research something when the writing calls for it? (I usually take the second option, and sometimes end up getting a little distracted in the process...)

What's your take on factual accuracy in fiction, and in which weird and wonderful research directions has your writing taken you?

15 comments:

Quinn said...

Love the post! I think it's important to remember that research needs to add to the story; it can't be stuffed in there just to show that you know it.

With fiction, I'm not looking for complete accuracy; especially in something like fantasy. But, having said that, I do expect things I know to work the way I know them to work. If you want to make something up, that's fine. If you want to change the background or history of something, fine, tell me. But ... other inaccuracies that are only there because it's convenient for the plot ... NO.

So, to an extent, I think it is important to be accurate in your portrayal of things in fiction.

Marieke said...

Me too! :)

Inaccuracy is one of my pet peeves, I will admit. Especially in historical novels (occupational hazard, I'd imagine), but also in fantasy. And with inaccuracy in fantasy I mostly mean facts that don't follow the rules of the world, whatever those rules may be. It's just lazy. Even if you make everything up, without any research at all, at least be consistent.

Other than that I do like well-researched books. It's more professional. And it's commitment. :)

Arlee Bird said...

I think you are very correct in what you say here. If the writer is immersed in the details of the world being written about then the writer can write from that world and give essential details without getting into every detail.
In my WIP I researched the weather in the city where the story is set for the specific days I was writing about. Not that important I guess, but it seemed important as I was writing certain scenes.

lee
Tossing It Out

Rachael Harrie said...

Great post Adina. I prefer to go with minimal OBVIOUS research/facts in my stories - by that I mean I like everything to be so seamless that the reader is immersed in the period/location/place without having pages and paragraphs of facts thrown at them. I think you've achieved a lovely balance when the reader "buys" the authenticity of the novel but doesn't get interrupted by obvious or heavy-handed details.

Having said that, I know some writers like detailed world- and fact- building, so really it's what works for you and your readers as a whole...

Rach

Tessa Quin said...

Ah, research! I do it as I write. I have to do quite a bit of research, even though the majority of my WIP takes place in a different world. Since I've never lived in the USA, I had to learn about the school system (what the heck is a "sophomore" and such), geography of New Jersey, any places near New Jersey that has vast forest lands, the history of that forest, the flora and wildlife.

I like doing research, but it can take a looong time, which is sucked away from my writing.

Alison Stevens said...

I tend to research a bit up-front, then go back and fill in/correct details later. But I agree that accuracy is important. So many people learn about history and science through movies and books... if it's inaccurate, people learn things incorrectly.

Speaking of research, I need to get myself to a bookstore today... a whole store full of English-language books!!

A Pen In Neverland: Angela Pe├▒a Dahle said...

Wonderful input on research. I find myself getting carried away at times and I too have to remember if what I am researching will move the story forward of hinder it when it comes to creativity and imagination. A story should never lack either of the two no matter how much research was put into the project. Thanks for this post!

Thanks for the comments on my blog! I will do my best to get a close up of the embroidery on the dress for you! Can't promise WHEN yet, BUT I'll get around to it.....

Patricia A. Timms said...

Adina, I love this post. You are right on all fronts. When I wrote my first book I wanted to add the Army and basic training. But then I did way too much research and added too much info. I revised it out later. But I do agree that research is essential. If you made it onto the terror watch list them I'm likely up there with you after that first book of mine. ;)

Megan K. Bickel said...

Adina - Excellent, as always. I wanted to let you know I gave you an award over on my blog today. : ) www.megankbickel.blogspot.com

Rachel Morgan said...

If something needs to be researched I tend to leave it until I have to actually write that part of my WIP. But then I can spend AGES reading things on the internet (just because it's interesting) and get completely distracted from actually writing!

Faith said...

For NaNoWriMo 2008, I did WAY too much research... I researched for months and months and finally when November came around, I think I was so bogged down by facts and details that the story itself failed. I made my wordcount that year, but the story just wasn't ALIVE the way I needed it to be. It needs a complete overhaul now. One of these days I'll get around to it...

Problem is, I do love research too much. Especially heading to university libraries and pulling giant tomes off the shelves and spending hours taking notes and reading and drinking way too much coffee... *wistful sigh*

Jenny Beattie said...

I love research but it's knowing when to stop...

I've come here via Rach Writes' Crusade. It's nice to meet you.

charlotteotter said...

I agree that we should be wary of too much research, because info-dumping can be very dull for the reader. Having said that, I watched a very useful video on YouTube on how to pick a lock and incorporated that immediately into my novel.

(I'm a fellow Crusader stopping by to say hello!)

Helen said...

I could research forever. It's my favourite part.

Hello fellow crusader, just thought I'd pop over and say hi with a few cupcakes ;)

Hart Johnson said...

I definitely write FIRST, research AFTER, because I can get so seduced by the research that I load the story down with unnecessary detail. It took me a while to figure out I could do it in this order, but the books are better for it.

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