Although I had my original training as a writer in fiction, the bulk of my published output over the years has been non-fiction, reflecting my qualifications in history.
Needless to say, accurate research is pivotal to non-fiction. Not just an ability to accurately make notes in research, but an ability to write the results down in a precise manner. It’s vital to the integrity of the work.
Good research is also crucial to fiction. It’s easy to think, ‘well, this is fiction’ and become cavalier about the details. But playing ducks and drakes with the facts is the fast road to destroying the essential suspension of disbelief on which all fiction must rest.
Dan Brown did it for me with his version of Paris in The Of Vinci Code ( I know what I said). His Louvre didn’t correlate with the Louvre I knew, including the pyramid (It’s the front door! It’s got the reception desk underneath it – not the Holy Grail). The geography of Brown’s Paris didn’t match the geography I’d walked. He mixed up railway stations, including ones I’d used and knew. And so it went on.
Yes, it was a compelling story – and Brown is a master at structuring reader pull-along. But that up-side, to me, didn’t compensate for the slack research. The word is authenticity; and authenticity counts in fiction just as much as it does in non-fiction.
My take on it? I think the following principles should apply to any piece of writing – fiction or non-fiction:
1. Time put into research pays dividends.
2. If you discover something that doesn’t match your conception of story and character – change the story, not the background.
3. It’s worth cross-checking the detail back against the original research after everything’s been edited.
4. Exploit the power of your word processor – don’t be afraid to add footnotes for your personal use to speed that cross-checking, then delete them in the final edit.
What are your thoughts on this one?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013
Next week: how this works in historical fiction, more humor, more writing tips.