Being a Better Writer: Doing Good Research

Hello again readers! I hope you’re well and healthy. Me? A little funky. Really tired. No other symptoms that—to my knowledge—line up with Covid-19, but I’m considering if I feel funky tomorrow calling and scheduling a test anyway, just to be on the save side. And if it isn’t going to bankrupt my bank account.

Anyway, I hope none of you feel funky, but are staying in feeling healthy and hale. Watch that pandemic people! Do your part to fight the menace and stay home.

And with that, I’m going to dive right into today’s topic. Which, if you’re a long-time reader of Being a Better Writer, is one of the more common recurring topics. It wouldn’t be, except that time and time again so many authors, editors, and publishers get it wrong, or don’t even bother to try getting it right.

Note: This may be short. I feel funky.

For example, some of you may recall a hilarious error earlier this year when a historical novel released to the world from a major publisher … only for readers to quickly notice that a segment on dying cloth had some very interesting ingredients listed. Such as “keese’s wing” or “Lizalfos tail.”

If you’re not familiar with those odd-sounding items, it’s because they’re not real, and certainly didn’t exist back in ancient Greece or Persia or whatever either. They’re ingredients from the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild video game, which had just come out when the author was writing the book. So when they Googled “Making X color dye” one of the most popular results at the moment was a guide for making the dye in Breath of the Wild using these fantasy ingredients.

Now, you’d think that someone would have noticed the video game screenshots, or maybe the address of the webpage, maybe checked the credentials of the site offering this information, but no. None of that was done. Instead this “historical” novel passed by a pack of Trad pub editors and readers with not a single person questioning “Keese’s wing” or any of the other ingredients as appearing in a dye, nor the very simple, video-game methods by which said dye was prepared (combine in pot, apply).

End result? A lot of embarrassment for the publisher and the author when they had to admit that they hadn’t checked things as closely as they should have. And the rest of the “historical novel” was suddenly under suspicion, because if the author couldn’t be bothered to check if the dying process wasn’t from a video game, what else in the novel hadn’t been properly researched? Were bandits going to set upon travelers with the warcry “Never should have come here?”

Thing is, this isn’t an isolated incident. This kind of thing happens all the time. It would seem that most Trad pubs are interested in getting a book out as quickly as possible over doing, say, actual editing and checking things for accuracy, even in Sci-Fi and Fantasy.

“Accuracy?” you might say. “In Sci-Fi and Fantasy?” Yes, actually, Sci-Fi and Fantasy, while being fantastic, still subscribe to certain rules. If you’re writing Sci-Fi, for example, you’ll want to run the numbers on your science, and make certain that they actually make sense.

For example, a recent Sci-Fi release from a major publisher featured an astonishingly glaring oversight when it came time for the author to describe the muzzle velocity of their new weapons. They described—get ready for this one—a railgun autocannon on an atmospheric fighter that fired rounds at .1c. That is, for those of you who don’t use “c” often enough, ten percent the speed of light (“c” being the speed of light).

In atmosphere.

The problem? Well, that’s really fast. Obscenely fast. Especially in atmosphere. No research was done here, just zeros added onto a number because “bigger numbers equal better.”

The problem? Well, once you actually do the math, this gun becomes a world ender. See, .1c is a lot of energy. Even ignoring the energy requirement to fire it, there’s the problem of the “bullet” making contact with anything at all. Why?

Because Nitrogen atoms (basic component of most breathable atmospheres) undergo fusion at 30,000 meters per second (some scientists argue it may take 60,000). The process which powers our sun. In fact, science is looking at railguns firing at Mach 58 as a way to kickstart fusion reactors.

.1c is a lot faster than that. It’s about 30,000,000 meters per second.

The result? Firing said gun would result in an instant line of atomic explosions that pointed in a straight line across the biosphere of an planet and out into space.

But … no one noticed this until the book was released, because no one actually bothered to check these numbers. Not editors, not a reading team … It wasn’t until the book reached the public that people started pointing out that the numbers were earth-shatteringly high.

Since then, the official word has been that the numbers are just the hyperbole of the character viewing it, and no longer official numbers since … Well yeah, they’re in planet-killing scope.

Alright, so these are just two recent examples, but both should illustrate to get the point across: Research is important. But with that, you need to be doing good research.

Looking back at the Keese’s wing for example, the problem wasn’t that the author didn’t do any research at all. It was that they didn’t bother to examine the results of their research. Just a quick Google, click and “Yeah, that must be right.”

After all, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “You can’t trust everything you read on the internet.”

Side note: As often as that meme is used, I fear that 1000 years from now that quote really will be attributed to Lincoln.

Anyway, point being that it’s very tempting, when doing research, to simply say ‘Well, that must be right’ to save time and effort. One quick Google, look at the search results, and come up with a conclusion without bothering to dig any deeper. Then publishing without asking if any of your Alpha Readers know anything on the topic (or finding Alpha Readers that do).

Look, short post today and all, but don’t do this. The best way not to make a mistake with your novel with regards to research? Give that research the time it deserves. I sat down while working on Starforge and spent a good hour doing research (and math) for something vitally important in the book. Time wasted? No, time well spent. Now, if needed, any reader can do the math themselves and go “Yeah, those numbers add up.”

And readers will. That’s the thing. There is always going to be someone who wonders about any element of your books that’s real or built on existing principles (or even fantastical ones you’ve laid out) and “does the math.” And if the results don’t add up and it becomes clear that the author didn’t bother to do it, well … It damages the reader’s trust in them.

All right, I realize that this is moving at a breakneck pace today, but I really don’t feel well. So how can you make certain that you’re not just doing research but doing research in a good manner? Pretty simple, really.

Go the extra step. Don’t just Google something. Click the links. Look over them. Check the website source, see what they exist to accomplish. Find academic sources. If there’s math to work out, work that out. Go a step further than just presenting your information: Understand it.

You may run into a case of “reality is unrealistic” from time to time. but that’s far better than trying to represent a portion of reality and failing.

Go the extra step. Check the sources, do the math, check an expert. Or several.

Give your readers a reason to trust you.

Good luck! Now get writing!

As for me? I’m going to ping some artists about a cover and then take a break. Sorry about the brevity, folks. Hopefully next week I’ll be back on it.

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