Write it now, part 28: how much does research count?

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.

I took this picture inside the Gare du Nord in 2004. It's not possible to see 16 outgoing lines from one place, despite Brown's description.
I took this picture inside the Gare du Nord, Paris. It’s completely different from the Gare St Lazare, Mr Brown, and it’s not possible to see 16 outgoing lines from one place.

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.


16 thoughts on “Write it now, part 28: how much does research count?

  1. I think this even applies to novels set outside the real world, like Fantasy and SF. Sure, your world might be completely made up, but even in your made-up world there must be consistency. I’m not saying you have invent several new languages and histories and mythologies for several races like Tolkien did, but at least draw a map (even if it’s only for your own reference) with place names and notes regarding distance and travel times. Research things like weapons, clothes and foods. Don’t have your knight riding a gelding instead of a charger. In SF, research technology to be sure you’re not making something up that already exists. For example, know a magnetron is an actual thing that has nothing to do with magnets (recently saw a tv show that made this mistake).

    1. Definitely – world-building, in effect, becoming the ‘research phase’ of the novel. And consistency fo that world is essential to the proper suspension of disbelief. Tolkien’s problem was he kept revising everything, including the background world – making it more wonderful every time, but a bit of a nightmare to keep straight when he came to writing his stories.

  2. That’s very astute of you, Matthew. I never even noticed and I used to live in Paris. I think I would be more critical of the book these days anyway, read a lot more books since then. I can’t imagine having to research on a huge scale and not get anything wrong.

    1. It’s the nature of the beast to some extent. The problem I had with Brown was that he portrayed everything as fact, yet his errors were so egregious that I was left wondering whether he had even visited Paris when he wrote the book.

      I draw distinctions between these sorts of large-scale bloopers and the occasional trivial issue that can come up, often at third-party hands during the editorial/publishing process. I spend a lot of time with my own books correcting changes made by publishers which create minor errors. It’s important – most of my output is non-fiction, and it’s crucial to get the accuracy – especially because, here in New Zealand at least, my books are trawled by academic hostiles for any trivial inconsistency on which to pivot a blanket public denial of my character, worth and scholarship. The usual mechanism involves deliberately finding ‘error’ in some phrase that has an ambiguity to it – in most cases, alas, one created editorially by someone else….sigh…

  3. This very afternoon I spent four hours interviewing a dear friend who also happens to be a 30-mission veteran navigator in the 8th AF in WW2. Talking to the ones who were there, listening to their voices, watching their faces, teaches things you can’t find in books.

    Even if you never use it in a book, the research itself is its own reward. I love to spend time with these guys. When they’re gone, that particular book closes forever.

    1. The chance to talk to these people – now slipping away from us forever, as the years roll by – carries value without measure for so many reasons. I recall talking to veterans during researches for my war histories – and they were able to bring a life to the story that paper records cannot. For me, doing non-fiction, they provided vital colour; the numbers and data came from paper records – and together, that combination allowed me to build a fuller picture. The ‘colour’ side is even more vital for fiction. And, absolutely, the experience of being able to spend time with these people and talk with them in any case has a reward of its own.

  4. I agree, and I agree that it’s needed in fantasy fiction. The world I built is created, but it’s grounded in this world, partly because I’m from this world and partly because my readers are from this world. Readers need to identify with something, after all. Glaciers still carve the landscape and parched regions are still dusty.

    1. Absolutely true! I figure the map is always the best start-point for world-building of this kind – the ‘foundation research’. Stuff follows – for me, at least, the geography then raises questions about how people interacted with it. (You can probably guess the genre of the novel I’m puttering away on around my contractual non-fiction committments…)

      Actually, I think I can feel a blog post coming on about this! 🙂

  5. I recently travelled to Ely in the UK to research something for my book, only to find that in medieval times (when the novel is set) Ely was an island. Today it most definitely is not. That really meant some changes to the plot – including ditching the horses in favour of a boat! So you are absolutely right. If there is a conflict between the facts and the fiction, change the fiction to fit the facts.

    1. Quite right. The story can always be adjusted to fit what’s required of its setting – the setting can’t. Even, I think, fantasy settings. Sometimes the author research can kick up surprises, too – like your discovery about the coastline changes. I recall reading Alexander Fullerton’s novel, years ago, on the battle of Jutland which included an author note stating exactly how ships of that era turned – which was the precise reverse of what you might expect (and of what happens on a modern vessel). A curious thing to point out in a note, but I suppose he felt that he might be picked up on it and wanted to get in first, before his readers did. Kind of a shot across the bows, as it were.

  6. I agree. I sent my characters to NYC. It has been ages since my last trip there, so I googled it to get an idea where to put the hospital and warehouse. Google wasn’t a lot of help, but at least I don’t think I put the helicopter flying into the Atlantic when I wanted it to go west.
    At a writing seminar I recently attended, the speaker told us we did not have to research, merely go with the flow. I felt like I had wasted my money. She was an award-winning writer, but it wasn’t fair to give us bad advice. Yes, there are times when you can “go with the flow”, but not with the entire book.
    Every time I see an actor do something wrong such as checking a pulse with their thumb or restraining a person seizing, I cringe. People get the wrong idea on how to do it. They expect and deserve some authenticity. The actors can’t do some things right because they would injure the other actor, but don’t put the IV running down to the hand, jab a 3″ needle into the neck, or expect an IM injection to take immediate effect. They may be great for effect, but so wrong.

    1. I agree with you – and think the speaker wasn’t correct. ‘Going with the flow’ will simply look sloppy to some readers. And they’ll be the ones who make their objections known. Probably loudly, and quite possibly not to the author directly.

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