You have to research to write


Two things converged for me this week to bring home the fact that I don’t know enough. First, I’m writing on something where in which in the first few pages I’ve run across a number of things I need to dig up: kinds of spiders in Tennessee, and what sorts of poisonous spiders do people keep as pets; who can obtain police complaint information and how and how long is that information kept: What do you call someone who is a deputy sheriff but not the elected sheriff (I figure deputy is the title, but do people in the town just call him Sheriff anyhow?). There were some other things I dug into also and more that I can see coming down the road soon.

researchThen the tornado hit in OK. As I’m watching coverage and trying not to think too hard about the devastation, I’m asking a lot of questions. Why was there any kind of storm shelter in the schools? What sorts of building materials could stand up to an F5? If you were building a Target or Safeway in the area, would you put a shelter in for your employees and customers? If a tornado is 2 miles wide, are the winds sustained over the entire width, or do they vary significantly?

I actually had a lot more questions. This was my writer brain asking, by the way. Because writers are magpies and we collect everything for our writing toolboxes. Or maybe as stuff to compost for our primordial ooze (phrase courtesy of Virginia Woolf). The point is, whether I’m writing or just encountering the world, I’m constantly discovering how much I still don’t know. Even when I think I know something, inevitably there is a lot I still don’t know about the subject.

That brings me back to my title. A lot of people think that writers just make stuff up, especially fantasy writers. They have no idea how much research has to go into even small moments to make them accurate and feel real–to create the believable reality for the reader. Maybe that reality is only a facade with nothing behind it (Thinking of Blazing Saddles now), but what shows is very detailed and complete. It has to be. And that means research. Who knows what you might have to find out. Because even when you make stuff up, it still has to work within what we know. You can’t make up new rules for physics, unless of course your world works differently, in which case you have to research the physics to know how differently things are and how you’re going to make consistent sense of it.

And remember, even what you think you know, you should probably double check it to be sure. I have a big library of research books on all sorts of subjects. I also have a ton of links on my webpage to various research sites so I can return to sites when I need to. I go digging up people with knowledge to ask questions. You never know who might be an expert in something. So one of the things to do as a writer is to keep track of who of your acquaintances knows what and be able to hit them up when needed.




19 comments to You have to research to write

  • As you know, Bob, I was a research librarian in another life, but I approach research for my books in a very different way than I did for the day job. In the law library, I researched until the alleged facts I found circled back on themselves in ways that made me confident they were true facts. In my writing life, I do almost entirely spot research — “what crystal is used to purify a space” or “what herbs treat lung ailments”. I *do* have one massive historical novel that I desperately want to write, but the research has … encouraged me to pursue other things first, second, third, twenty-fifth.

    (And I think your Oklahoma examples are good windows into how we use our work to distance ourselves from the insanity of the real world…)

  • Diana, I do what you and Mindy do (and I love the term *spot research*). I save most of my research for the writing projects until I am actually writing. Mainly because I don’t know what I’ll need until I start writing.

    But things were different back before the Internet and search engines. Back then (when we had to walk to the library barefoot, in the snow, uphill {both ways}), I used to subscribe to a variety of magazines which I kept in big plastic containers. The mags covered everything: jewelry making, cooking, firearms, gardening, herbs, horses, military stuff, archaeology … I would scan/read each and dog-ear the pages I thought I might use in the future and then store them. It was time-consuming and … fun. I adored research. I still do. Thought spot research is it for me these days do to time constraints.

    And yes, as to the pertinent premise of your post — it has to be right. Fans know stuff, and it has to be realistic. And believe me they comment when it’s off. LOL Oh, boy do they comment…

  • Mikaela

    It is funny. Before I switched to Swedish I rarely did spot research, but once I did, I got much more careful. So now I am doing both background reading and spot research.

    Especially since my current WIP is a historical fantasy set in Stockholm :D.

    ( Oh, and I got so tired of scientific inaccuracies that I started a company offering research help. Not doing the actual research, more helping to find starting points. We will se how it goes. )

  • The internet is both a boon and a bane for research. While it’s much easier and faster to gather the information I need, it’s also much easier to get lost in the research rather than actually writing. I have to be careful to limit my clicks so I don’t just wander aimlessly through that worldwide web!

  • mudepoz

    *Snort* Even physicists don’t understand physics.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Thank you for the link, mudepoz. I particularly liked “X-rays will prove to be a hoax.” In fairness to today’s physicists, though, at least they believe in experimentation. One of the famous Greek philosophers didn’t know about inertia and declared that a thrown object keeps moving by creating a vacuum in front of itself that continuously sucks it forward.

  • FYI — I’ll be posting this in the comments often in the next 2 weeks.
    The MW lunch at ConCarolinas is on Saturday June 1, from noon to 3 pm in Boardwalk Billy’s. I had to post a credit card note for the room, so if you are not on the list, you may not get in. If your plans change, let me know ASAP, so I can adjust accordingly.
    So far (names shortened for privacy) we have:
    Margaret C,
    3 Gilberts,
    Judith and Melanie,
    Sharon S,
    Emily L,
    Lee WW,
    Joyce and Lynn,
    3 Masseys and Jan,
    David and Daughter,
    Wayne McC,
    Janet WW,
    Theresa G,
    Gerald and Angela,
    James Tuck,
    Tiff Clark and guest.
    Hubby and Faith.
    Larry plus 3.
    Carrie Ryan and Hubby
    Aj and son

  • Yes, people think writers make stuff up. In fact, as we were readying promo material for the upcoming release of THIEVES’ QUARRY, I wrote some of the jacket copy, drawing on both the historical set up and plotting for the book. And somebody at Tor — somebody working for my own publisher — sent back comments explaining why the stuff that I had put in the jacket copy couldn’t have been possible, historically speaking. My editor and I had to go back to them and say, “Ahem. Not only is this possible, it is dead on accurate. BECAUSE I DIDN’T MAKE IT UP!!!!!” It was a little frustrating . . . .

  • One of the first stories I wrote dealt with a lot of medieval medicine. I couldn’t use modern herbals for sources, as most will only list current and medically proven efficacy of the herbs. Two hundred years ago, people used herbs based on what they ~believed~ the herb, or other “medicine” would do often to their detriment. My healer had to follow the norms of the story’s setting, not on correct usage.

    When I read, nothing turns me off more that inaccuracies. Sure, I’ll make things up, but the things I make up still have to obey the laws of my world. And the things I don’t make up have to be right.

    And Diana – I asked many of the same questions while watching news of the aftermath of the storms. I also catalog questions I want answers to at some of the oddest moments. I have a file on my tablet called “Questions.” 🙂

  • Razziecat

    Yes, research is a black hole…it can draw you in and never let you out 🙂 I still like to go to the library for some things, but I mostly research online now. Some of the things I’ve had to research for my WIP include the melting temperature of steel; how long a human corpse takes to burn down more or less completely; what herbs go into a healing ointment for burns (anyone see a trend here?); how to make spoon bread; and the magical properties of various types of wood. I also keep a document on file called “Incredible Science”, wherein I paste fascinating bits of info and/or links and reference notes for said info.

  • Do I smell fire-breathing kitty cats, Razzie? 😉

    Totally agree about this, Diana. And even with my Geography degree, I find myself researching tidbits about climates and biomes and how the land in an area *works* because I want it to have the ring of authenticity. With the current WIP set in Boca Raton, FL, I had a field day with Google Earth, and grilled a writing friend who goes to the area regularly about little details. Stuff some people might take for granted, like love bugs (which we don’t have up here). It’s those details, the things that are obvious about something to someone familiar with that thing, that really stand out.

  • sagablessed

    Late as always. Research is a pain. I currently have three WIPs (I know, bad writer) and The first I am set on, so research is limited. The second has me delving into noble metals and quantum entanglement. The third has a language that is a mix of Latin, Old Norse, and Scottish Gaelic.
    Ummm….shoot me.

  • Mindy: I sort of miss the graduate student life of wallowing in a library and letting serendipity show me new cool things. But now, yeah, more spot research than not.

    Faith: I still collect a lot of research stuff. But I’m so glad for the net and for being able to network to experts fairly easily. I tend to do a fair bit of research before writing until I feel like I know enough to write. That varies book to book depending on what I need to know. In this WIP, I need a better sense of place to make it work, so I’ve been trying to discover that. And language.

    Mikaela: That’s very cool! I’d love to hear more about your research company and what you’re doing.

  • Sisi: Amen and pass the whiskey.

    mudepoz: *snort* that was fun!

    Hepseba: Wait a minute . . . It doesn’t? Isn’t that how spaceships travel too? 😀

    David: that’s funny. In a sad sort of way. I think it would have been fun to hear Jim correcting the person. Besides, what do you know? It’s not like you have a PhD in history or anything. 😀

  • Lyn: Glad I wasn’t the only one. I need to put a Question File on my tablet. Dover books was my salvation on herbals when I wrote the Path books. I used both volumes of this one: Plus some others. I loved reading the old uses for plants.

    Razziecat: you know, I think I’ve look up some of those questions myself. I ended up picking up some books on forensics for the decay of bodies too.

    Laura: A geology degree, eh? (filing that away for future use). I had a woman in San Diego go take a picture of a place so that I could get a detailed sense of the exact location. It’s good when people can be helpful.

    Sagablessed: quantum entanglement? *backs away carefully* That’s scary. With three projects, at least you’re not bored, right? 😀

  • quillet

    I love research. Probably too much! I could spend hours researching just about anything. *stops and thinks* Actually, I have done that! 😀 Gotta wear it lightly, though. Just because I’ve researched medieval farming practices doesn’t mean my readers want a lecture on the subject. I just want to get the details right (I’m saying this to remind myself!), but only to serve the story, not take it over.

  • Diana – check out an app called “Notebooks.” It’s great for keep notes organized on my tablet. And you can have different notebooks for stuff like “Ideas,” “Dialog,” or anything else that intrigues you but doesn’t yet have a story idea to hang from.

  • Mikaela

    Thanks, Di! I’ll send you an e-mail ASAP. ( And if you still have questions, you can ask me in the war room :D)

  • I tend to agree with you. However, Dan Brown’s books (which he claims are “the true story”) are full of made up stories. (I’m a medievalist.) Even the most lazy undergraduate knows more about medieval history than his books, but he sells a lot of them. It’s frustrating.