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.
Then 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.