This article is about research for fiction writers. Not long ago I was asked the following question:
I’d love to read an article about research and credibility when writing fiction. I’m always wondering for example how accurate I have to be when I use real life elements in fantasy. Where should reality end and my story begin?@YvetteBaliko, Twitter
Well, today I’m going to answer that question but I’m also going to talk more generally about why you need to do research, what type of research you can do, what areas should our research cover, and how much research you should do.
The types of research for fiction writers
It may seem I’m jumping the gun here as the first item on my list above was ‘why you need to do research’ but the answer to that will become clear if we look at the types of research you can do.
Before you start writing your story, think about what things you need to know and what areas you need to research.
If you are writing any work set on Earth , whether historical fiction or present day, whether it contains fantastical elements or not, you need to get the facts right. Some of the facts are easy. You’re not going to put mobile phones in a medieval drama, for example. But some of the facts aren’t so easy and you’ll need to research them. For example, what exactly did early-Georgian-era ladies wear to a wedding? Did they throw confetti? If so, what was it made of? Did the bride throw the bouquet to the unmarried young ladies?
I would argue that you should aim to get all the facts right in whatever story you are telling. There will be people reading your book who have intimate knowledge of the era you are writing about, and they will take to the reviews and slaughter you if you get things wrong. The worse your mistake (i.e. if the error is obvious or it is something you could easily have researched and got right) the worse you will be panned.
Let’s look now at works of fantasy which are set in another world but are clearly based on a medieval-Europe setting. Or another era that is clearly based on Earth. The closer your world is to the chosen era, the more readers will expect you to get the facts right. But if your world is only loosely based on the era, and there are many differences, then readers will be fine if the facts don’t marry up. I think it helps to look at specific examples so lets look at a few:
- A fantasy novel set in another world based on a medieval-Europe setting. The wrong titles are used (Lord, Duke) for nobility. Personally I’d be ok with this because it’s another world, especially if other features of the governance and class system are different to historical Europe.
- A fantasy novel set in another world based on 16th century China. The people are eating potatoes. Personally I’d be ok with this because I presume the map of your world looks nothing like Earth, so there’s no ‘potatoes are only from S.America’ argument that could be hurled at you.
- A fantasy story set in another world based on a medieval-Europe setting. The horses travel 120 miles in a single day. It is physically impossible for a horse to travel this distance in a day. I’d object to this being in a story.
Now let’s turn to writers of science fiction. Science fiction writers may wonder how much they need to get the science right. This comes up a lot for people writing novels set in space. The answer is that it depends on what type of story you are telling. Science fiction can be categorised in two ways: there is hard science fiction, which is where the science is accurate (eg The Martian); and there is soft science fiction, which is where there is no intention to get the science right and is often wrong (eg Star Trek).
There is wiggle room between these two extremes. For example, many space opera novels have faster-than-light travel in them (which is not possible according to current scientific theories) but in other respects the science is correct. For example, they generate gravity in space by spinning ships and asteroids.
It would be great to examine more examples so please ask your questions in the comments.
No-one’s book is published in a vacuum. As a writer, it is important that you know what is going on in the literary world. In particular, you should be aware of what has been recently published in your genre (whether it is crime, romance, science fiction or whatever), what has won major Awards, and the trends in your genre.
When I say ‘be aware’ of what is recently published, I mean you should be reading newly published books. At least some of these should be bestsellers because you will learn what is selling well and connecting with readers.
You should continue to learn about the craft of writing. Read books on writing craft, attend courses and workshops, and join writing groups. When you read, look at how the author uses language, setting, dialogue, and constructs plot and characters. See this post on Reading as a Writer for more detailed advice.
Sources of information
Now let’s look at where writers can go to do research and find information. Libraries are good. You can usually search their collections to see what books and other texts they hold. University libraries are often very comprehensive non-fiction sources. Even if you’re not a student, many universities allow locals to use their libraries. You may not be able to borrow books but you can usually read them on the premises.
The internet is another obvious source of information, but you need to be careful about which sites you trust. Not all websites are reliable, and even sites you consider reliable may occasionally post the odd untrue article. If you can corroborate information, then it is more likely that the information is accurate. Traditionally-published non-fiction books are always considered the most reliable sources because they are fact-checked.
You can also use other people as a source of research. If you’re writing a science fiction novel set in space, you might find it useful to ask an astrophysics professor some questions. A crime writer might want to talk to a crime scene tech. Books are great but they might not address the exact questions you need answers to. A person who you talk to in real time (ideally face to face but phone or videochat is ok) will be able to answer any question, and they can also answer follow-up questions arising from their initial answers.
It is easy to find potential interview subjects. Search for them online, either a google search for the type of person you need, or search on twitter or Facebook. It is best to ask a ‘normal’ person rather than a celebrity or public figure, because the latter are unlikely to allow you an interview. At last resort, telephone a company or society that does what you need information on. You may get lucky if you explain you’re a writer and only need a few minutes of someone’s time.
I find that writing conferences and conventions are good places to raise questions and find answers. For example, last year at Swanwick Writers Summer School I attended a course on crime writing and the presenter was a crime scene technician so she was a mine of information. If you’re a female crime writer, the Sisters in Crime organisation is a great one to join for information.
How much research should fiction writers do?
When it comes to facts, as in point 1 above under research types, you should do as much research as necessary in order to tell the story. Let’s take the Georgian wedding example. If a Georgian-era novel has a scene at a wedding, then I would try to look for accounts or other information about a Georgian wedding.
You may wish to research everything you need to know for the entire story before you start writing. Alternatively, you may decide to research just enough to get started and do more as needed as you write. There are pros and cons of each approach. Just don’t let the research unduly delay you from starting your novel. If you like research or you are a perfectionist, you are more likely to get bogged down in it so perhaps the second approach (doing enough to get started) is best for you.
If you are writing your story and realise you need to research something, you may not want to stop there and then to find out the information. You may be in the flow and want to keep going. In this case, set a placeholder so you find the position later. It is common practice to use the letters TK as a placeholder. These letters never occur together in the English language so when you search for them later, the results will contain your placeholders only.
What if I cannot find the answer to a question?
If I did my best to research a fact but I could not find out the answer, then I would weigh up whether it’s likely that other people would know the answer. Let’s say it is likely. Now I would weigh up whether I need to put it in the story. If it’s not necessary or there’s some other way of getting round it I would leave it out. If it is necessary, I’d put in my best educated guess.
Alternatively, if it’s unlikely that other people would know the answer then I would weigh up whether I want to put it in the story. If no, I’d leave it out. If yes, I’d put in my best educated guess.
For example, if I’m writing a story about Bronze Age people and I’m writing about how they celebrate the birth of a baby, I can pretty much do what I like because no-one can contradict me.
Here’s an example of the research I did for a story. This story ended up at about 9,000 words so it was much shorter than a novel. It was a science fiction story about an Olympic weightlifter who was given an offer to go to a high gravity planet to train before the next interstellar Olympics. The reasoning was that the added gravity would improve his performance by increasing muscle mass and red blood cells.
The research I did was on many areas:
- I researched the moves that weightlifters do, and I watched Youtube videos of them doing them, for example a clean and jerk or a snatch.
- The different weight classes for men and women at the Olympics and how it all works when they’re competing.
- Average height and age of Olympic weightlifters
- Training and diet regimes for Olympic weightlifters
- Other performance-enhancing training regimes, in particular altitude training.
- Current thinking on high gravity training
- The science behind altitude training and high gravity training
- Through researching/googling high gravity training I came across a company that makes suits which mimic high gravity conditions on the body. I researched this and how it compares to the real thing ie a planet.
- I read many articles on weightlifting, in particular an account of the life of a weightlifter by an Olympic weightlifter.
- Recreational lifting versus career weightlifting
- The setup of the Olympics eg what the Olympic Committee does, how national and international competing works
- How Olympic athletes get paid, who pays them, how much.
- Who pays the coaches of Olympic weightlifters, how much, how they are chosen
- The type of planet or moon that my character might go to.
- Time zones and the best place to locate my character initially (I chose Prague).
- The best place for a spaceport in the US.
I’ll stop there but I could go on. Because I was writing science fiction and setting my story in the far future I knew I didn’t need to get things like the Olympic infrastructure right. I still researched it though because my story would have the legacy of the current system. I just didn’t research it in detail. All my research was on the internet. I don’t know how writers managed before the internet!
Well that’s all from me on research for fiction writers. Please let me know your thoughts or questions in the comments.