Friday, November 12, 2010

Appropriate Levels of Research

I've been researching my new WIP lately, and this has naturally led to me thinking about researching novels in general. How much research is enough? How much knowledge of a particular subject does an author need in order for their book to be realistic? When is it acceptable to fudge facts or make things up entirely?

I'm of the opinion that the answer depends on how important the subject is to the story. There's a sliding scale. On one end are the subjects that you absolutely need to know to write the story, and on the other end are the fun details that most people who aren't experts or nerds won't even notice you got wrong.

The Sliding Scale of Research

  1. The book can't be written without an in-depth knowledge of bananas. Assuming the book is fiction, you don't have to get a Ph.D in bananaology to write it, but reading a couple books on the evolution, economy, diseases, and harvesting of bananas will be necessary. You may want to talk to a bananaology or a banana farmer too.
  2. One of the characters knows an awful lot about bananas without being a bananaologist. Again, reading a book or two is a good idea. Holding a banana tasting party may or may not be going too far. It depends on how much of a connoisseur your character is.
  3. The book is set somewhere there are banana trees. You occasionally make references to the number of leaves, the amount of fruit, and possibly a secondary or minor character works as a banana picker. You'll need to know the growth cycle of the tree so that it's not producing fruit at the wrong time of year, and you'll need to know what it takes to harvest bananas. A couple magazine articles might be all you need.
  4. One of your characters eats a banana. You need to know what a banana looks like, and you need to know how it tastes. The simplest solution is to go to a grocery store and buy one, then eat it.
  5. The book is set in a fantasy world where bananas don't exist, but something very like them does. Again, you need to know the look and feel and taste of a banana, but only so you can mess around with them for your fantasy fruit.
For the previous WIP, I spent a fair bit of time researching electricity. I didn't read physics papers or talk to a physicist, since the book's fantasy and I'm allowed to be not exact, for the sake of the story. I did, however, look into how much electricity it would take to kill someone, and what electrical burns look like. I also looked into energy weapons, space drives, forcefields, hydroponics, and the Great Depression (though admittedly not much on that one). I have online Mandarin and Japanese dictionaries bookmarked, and I spent a couple hours looking at Chinese and Japanese art styles. I still need to find somebody with a Tesla coil, and I need to schedule a meeting with the local police department. That last one is insanely important, but since the police bits aren't finalized, I don't have all my questions yet so am putting it off.

For the current WIP, I've been reading up on gnosticism because it's heavily going to influence the world-building and climax. I'll need to read various mythologies as well, starting with Trickster myths and then heading into anything that has a secondary world. Beyond that, I think pretty much everything is fudgeable because magic isn't real and the settings I've picked are either mundane towns or magical communities. It's modern day, so my characters have cell phones, cars, coffee shops, airplanes, and the like. I may have to look into blade weapons, though. I don't know yet.

What have you researched? For the book you're working on, what do you still need to? What's the most glaring lack of research you've encountered?


Cori said...

Oooh, research. How I both hate and love thee...

I'm writing my nano novel right now and it's taken a bit of research - mostly I do it on the spot. I'm notoriously bad about researching beforehand. I'm looking up diseases, plagues, herbs, Ojibwe words, animal facts, how bakeries work, things like that. All the junk you'd need to know about a post-apocalyptic world after a plague comes through that wipes out most of humanity.

...and most of the monkeys. But that doesn't matter to anyone but me.

For me, I almost have to write the dang first draft, then go research what I should have done in the first place, THEN come back and put it into my story. That's the way I work. ;)

Glaring lacks of research... easy answer is fanfic. 'Amateur' writers seem to think they can get away with not looking up how things work and nobody will care. And yet silly things that are unrealistic are one of the things I refuse to read. I can look through plot holes, bad grammar, unsubstantiated plot moves... but completely unrealistic things that SHOULD be realistic? Nope.

Is it seriously that hard to look up something about the justice system? Kids are not classified as 'dead' after being missing for two weeks, for crying out loud. And no, you can't represent yourself in court and make fun of the justice system by quoting laws - that doesn't actually happen. *sigh*

But in published literature? *thinks* I don't read that much and I'm rather picky about what I read... I'd have to say, in general, that historical novels are the worst offenders in 'not enough research'. I don't think I could count the number of times I've read something 'historical' and found glaring holes in the background facts. The main plot points are all done well, usually, but the background stuff sometimes snag. Inventions before they should exist, words or phrases being used that wouldn't have been, 'modern' concepts sneaking into the past. Girls regularly going to school, the various races being treated equally, and women working at jobs. They're small things, but it drives me up the wall.

I can't think of one particular book, though. :)


Anassa said...

I don't tend to look things up beforehand either, unless they're things that I really, honestly need to know if I'm going to write the plot. Stuff like mythology, when I'm writing a fantasy. But even then, I learn the basics and pick up the rest later on. There are even some topics I need to look at for the Beta!WIP… I pretty much have to get the story in its final form before I really know what I need to find out, sometimes.

Ha! Yes, fanfic… I love it so. ^^ That amateur writer thing carries over into non-fanfic territory as well. They think 'cause it's fiction, they can make it up completely.

I can imagine that historical novels are the worst offenders, though I know they can't be entirely accurate or they've be non-fiction and/or very boring. I'm okay with them playing with the language a little bit. There's an argument that goes, "This is modern to them, so have them sound modern to us, especially if the language is old/dead." Anything set in medieval England should technically have people speaking in Middle English, with maybe some Norman French thrown in for spice. But most people don't read those languages, so you've got to update the dialogue. I don't have nearly so much truck with the modern concept or action stuff, though.