Thursday, May 26, 2011

Research – Is It Really Necessary in Fiction?


Without question, a non-fiction writer needs to research his topic or be an expert in the field. Even then, double checking the "facts" mustn’t be ignored. Nobody knows it all.

Fiction writing is different, right? It’s make-believe. Science fiction and fantasy, in particular, give a free hand to the writer’s imagination, do they not? Yes, they do . . . and no, they don’t.

Readers come from all walks of life and are a sharp group of folks. Never shortchange or underestimate their knowledge or their penchant for checking the “facts” when faced with an unlikely or seemingly impossible scenario. The writer’s imagination can captivate the reader and keep her turning pages, but disbelief loses that reader and potential fan of your future books. Yes, even science fiction needs to be based on current scientific understanding, at least by extension. A physics student, for instance, may be an avid sci-fi reader; but if confronted with a scene that includes what he knows to be an absolute impossibility, that reader will no doubt opt to choose the works of another author in the future.

Fantasy allows more latitude; the name of the genre itself implies an absence of reality. Also, the rules are different—but there are rules. Nothing has to be possible as we know it. However, our characterizations need to be strong and consistent; and the rules we set for the times, places, and events need to be followed without exception. (Readers will be on the lookout for inconsistencies.) Also, incorporating a few “facts” that ground the reader in potential possibilities and creating characters that the reader can relate to on some level go a long way toward bringing that reader back for your next book. (More on fantasy writing in another article.)

A few years ago, I worked with a beginning novelist who told a great story but didn’t want to check the “facts.” I urged the need for research to be certain the situations in her book could occur in real life. She told me it didn’t matter; those situations were “generic.” No, they weren’t.

Because we had already engaged in a number of similar discussions, I suggested the author find someone else to work with. This met with an offended response about my rudeness. (I wasn’t at all rude, but I was firm.) In less than a month, however, I received a post from the writer, who had spoken with someone else about my bad attitude. That “someone else” reiterated everything I had said regarding the need for research in fiction writing, which this time the writer believed. Humble and contrite, she asked me to please reconsider my position and finish the edit. Since then, I have worked with her on other projects, and everything has gone smoothly. She respects what I say, and I listen to what she wants. When the two don’t quite meet, we discuss alternatives that satisfy her creative style, and we seek a “factual” solution that works for both of us.

Moral of this article: In order for the reader to suspend disbelief and “walk” into any story, it needs to be possible or be clearly fantasy. Our readers may be doctors, lawyers, scientists, software developers, single parents, formerly (or currently) homeless people, etc. If our characters come from the same occupations or professions or walks of life as our readers, our “facts” had better be right on. If they’re not, we lose not only a reader and fan, but the backlash of word-of-mouth or written reviews that highlight our shortcomings may well impact our sales.

A little research goes a long way toward enhancing our writing and building our reader base. Remember to include this vital element when creating your stories. You will never regret the extra hours spent to suspend the reader’s disbelief and keep him glued to your realistic story to the very last page.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Linda Lane works primarily as a fiction editor. Her denvereditor.com team, however, includes an award-winning nonfiction editor, as well as experienced content and developmental editors. You can visit her at http://www.denvereditor.com/


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15 comments :

  1. I've often been quoted as saying, "don't confuse me with the facts," however, as much as I hate research, truth is I can't escape it.

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  2. I'm the opposite - I love the research. It's the actual writing that can get tiresome after the first blast of creativity. :D

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  3. Thanks for this post. Research is absolutely just as important to fiction as it is to non-fiction. Now, if only we could get this message out to screenwriters -- I can't tell you how many times I've turned off a movie or TV show because the writers took a flying leap into the realm of the utterly impossible. Truth is the frame you must hang your lies on.

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  4. I thought I was brilliant to include a new scene in my WIP, requiring that yesterday I take a research trip to a candy factory (yes, chocolate was consumed and purchased). But then a writer friend wrote me from France, where she is doing research for a novel, and I thought, Hmm, maybe I should dream bigger...

    Good for you for sticking to your guns with that client, Linda. Sometimes a willingness to walk away screams the loudest.

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  5. I love doing the research. I think it adds a ring of authenticity to my plot as well as to my dialogue. Any fiction writer is writing about 'what if' but let's get the facts straight before we veer off into our imaginations.

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  6. Linda, I love your post about the need for research. My own blog has been dealing with aspects of this problem recently, and I'd love to be able to include your remarks as part of that discussion. Do you do guest blogs? Or allow re-posting of your blog?

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  7. Just had to say, love this, Elspeth:
    "...let's get the facts straight before we veer off into our imaginations."

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  8. Historical fiction (my current WIP) is especially tricky. Research is essential and I also do not want to misrepresent that time period. Thank you for your thoughts.

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  9. I agree that plausible based on current information is important. I think knowing when you can stretch the truth, and when you need to stay within its boundaries will keep the reader involved in the book. If they can't accept the reality you've created based on their own experiences, they're probably not going to like the book.

    Terry
    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

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  10. I like your blog and your sharp readers. I agree with you and with them. I love the research. It always leads me in directions I hadn't expected. The learning always goes wider and deeper than I had planned.

    You know, I paint and draw. You can paint a fairly good landscape or portrait by copying from a photograph, which is itself a copy. But the difference between a painting made from a copy and one from actually "being there" is easily discernible. Research does matter--it counts. And, research, depending on its quality, depth or breadth, is still only partway closer to being there. Nothing takes the place of actually pressing the flesh, so to speak, actually climbing those hills or swimming in that ocean.

    The research can stop at the library or even at the factory, for that matter, and you will have a solid story, even a good one. But it's not the same as working in that factory day in and day out...for years. That might be another story, and may not be necessary. We all have to stay within the parameters and scope of what we're trying to accomplish for our readers with a given piece. We have deadlines, after all. Still, it's good for us as writers to ask ourselves if we might go a little further, offer a little more conflict or another dimension with more information, history, color, or experience on the subject.

    Meaningful research, you and your readers already know, can help to reveal the "real" story. We may start out with a technically competent essay about this...and end up with living breathing characters caught in the passion of a story that.

    Sorry this is so long. Thank you, peace,

    Diane

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  11. Sorry, I cut myself off there, worried about going on so long.

    I should insert, "about," near the end:

    "...and end up with living breathing characters caught in the passion of a story about that."

    Thanks, peace,
    Diane

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  12. OH, YES, indeed! It's essential. We've all read books that have at least one glaring error that could've been fixed with a simple phone call or google look-up. I once read a book by a very well-known, prolific author who kept talking about going out to "castrate the cows." City dwellers probably never noticed, but as a Montana ranchgirl, that was inexcusable! I've never read another of her books.

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  13. I agree, Linda. Research is important in fiction. If you set a book in a real town and name places, readers who live there will know if you've got it right. Doesn't mean you can't invent stores or restaurants or clubs, but to center the reader in that real town, you need to also know the layout and use it in the book, too.

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  14. Thanks for the great post. I think its much-needed advice for some writers.

    Personally, I find myself getting lost in my research. So much so that I have to be careful I’m not allowing it to become detrimental to my storytelling. Months ago I ended up studying pendulum mechanics and how lower gravity would effect the walk-run transition in how people would move.

    I ended up spending weeks digging through hypothesis on how low G environments may affect physiology.

    Countless hours were spent imagining how the environment would modify the way we engineered transportation, architecture and simple machines—after all a blender would be pretty inefficient with only a third of Earth’s gravity to pull the contents towards the blades at the bottom.

    Even though a lot of what I learned may never make it into the manuscript and most people will never notice or care, I hope it shows through in subtle ways. It did make a big difference in a car-chase scene though ;)

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  15. An excellent post, and one that hits close to home as I work on world-building for my in-progress fantasy novel.

    I've found that the books that I love the most are ones that have a world that is elaborate and clearly articulate, one that feels complex. With my own work, I've tried to take the time to start generating myth and backstory, using historical timelines and other tools to try and figure out where my characters came from. Probably only 1% of that work will actually make it into the book, but having a foundation of that nature makes it much easier for me to write.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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