Welcome back, writers! Another Monday is here, bringing with it the start of a new month as well as—in my case, anyway—another load of snow.
Which is both unusual and not, where I live. From my time in Utah, I’ve grown to expect the “last gasp” of winter to be a snow flurry in the first weekend of April, and most of the time that’s exactly what happens, forming a striking interrupt in what would otherwise be the “first bike ride of spring” territory.
But that’s a flurry, one that never sticks to the ground. By comparison this year has broken all sorts of snow records across the state, and last night wasn’t a “chance of snow flurries” but a full “winter storm warning.” And while that just meant a few inches as of this morning, at least where I dwell, the fact remains that such is not a flurry, and winter’s grasp is proving exceptionally clingy this year.
None of this has that much to do with today’s topic, by the way. This is just preamble. Unless you’re searching for information and research about what it’s like in Utah today, to which I’d answer at least the northern half of the state is pretty wet.
But you’re probably not here for that. No, if you’re here on Unusual Things on a Monday, odds are you’re here for Being a Better Writer. Which, fortunate reader you, is the true purpose of this post. Monday delivers something to look forward to once again.
So, enough kidding around. There’s already a news post from last Friday if you’re wondering what else is going on around here, so you can go read that if you’re curious about what the latest projects are (or if you’re new, to see what’s going on and what the rest of the site is concerned with). Everyone else who’s read in, let’s talk about today’s topic: how to do the research.
See, a common axiom repeated again and again here on Unusual Things as well as at writing conventions and other workshops involved in the process of teaching writing is “Always do the research.” Sands, it comes up often enough that there’s a tag for it in the tag cloud here (“Research,” for the curious, which will also grace this post).
With as often as it comes up, however, it continues to do so. “Always do the research” has to be an axiom because there are, unfortunately, a wide array of folks who don’t do the research. Or do the research really poorly. And prior discussions of this topic have pointed out direct examples of books that have made it to print from traditional publishers that have had wide arrays of astounding errors, each with their own ramifications.
Side note: My personal favorite has to be a Sci-Fi machinegun that fired at .25c, as in the speed of light, without somehow creating a chain of fusion explosions the moment the bullet began to accelerate down the atmosphere, while the favorite of the news is a “historical fiction” novel from a few years back that managed to infamously confuse a Legend of Zelda videogame walkthrough for “historical fact,” resulting in a truly bizarre bit of “historical fiction” (yes, this made it past the editors of a major publishing house, which says a lot about how good the self-claimed “gatekeeping for quality” seal is at actually providing said quality). My least favorite was a short story fiction winner that based its entire setup on the idea that copper rusts like steel, then presented an “idealized” future of agrarian farmers and hunters that made it very clear the author had no idea how farming worked in the slightest and couldn’t even be bothered to do some basic research.
Okay, side-note over. Point is, “always do the research” is a truism regardless of what you’re writing about. I recall one of my first exposures to this coming from what was one of my first LTUE attendances, where a fairly famous Fantasy author gave a little example of how many fantasy books he’d read that had a tannery in the middle of a generic fantasy village, which was his “red flag” for “this writer did no research whatsoever.” Because tanneries stink, and you did not want them inside the village. At the least they’d be confined to an industrial sector downwind of everyone else who cared about the smell.
Point being, just because we’re writing about fiction doesn’t mean that our stories entirely disregard reality. In fact, actually, it’s quite the opposite. Contrary to what the common layman may think, writing fiction can actually be far more difficult than writing non-fiction. Writing non-fiction often simply means reciting facts, recording or transcribing them for the future. If Scientist Davi runs an experiment and it fails, that is what non-fiction records: Scientist Davi ran an experiment—here are the details from their notes—and it failed.
Fiction, on the other hand, is not merely regurgitating an occurrence. It means taking aspects of reality, from physics to biology to finance—everything related to what you’re writing about, in other words—and then understanding it to the degree that you can write about what would happen if you applied a small twist. It’s not only understanding that something exists, such as a tannery during medieval times, but understanding enough of how that tannery operates and what it did so that you can understand how and where it slots into its surroundings and the economy of the village … So that when you do something like have it operate via wizard, or perhaps be run by a group of paranoid gnomes standing three-high in a trench-coat, you’re able to work out how that would change said tannery.
In other words, non-fiction is often about regurgitating facts, while fiction is about understanding them to the degree that you can write a reasonable way for them to become different if you make that tiny tweak of fiction.
And look at that. We’re a thousand words in and still locked in the preamble. Point being, “always do the research” is a must-have mantra if you want to write good fiction. Fiction that understands the world enough to make that tiny tweak. Now, this doesn’t mean that it’ll stay true or even happen that way—after all, Crichton wrote Jurassic Park back in the late 80s and since then the science hasn’t given us dinosaurs like the book, much in the way Shelley’s Frankenstein didn’t give us corpses reanimated by lightning. But both at the time did do research into what science thought might be possible. Sure, we may find a dozen years later that orbits don’t exactly work like that, or what we thought was a planet was in fact, a misinterpreted signal. Doing the research does not future-proof our books into being non-fiction.
But it does ground them. And there are some things that will stay true, regardless of setting. For example, if you’re writing a book about a small fantasy village with a tech-level comparable to say, 200 AD Roman Empire, then one thing you’re going to want to do research on—even if just for something as benign as a character going to get a glass of water. Because procuring a cup of water in a 200 AD tech-level is not automatically akin to producing one today. To write about how your characters might live, you need to know how people in those places and situations lived. Why they made the building choices they made. The life choices they made. Career.
Not because you’re going to replicate it 100%, but because you need to understand what the affects of your little wrinkle will be. If you’ve introduced magic of some kind to this setting, you’ll need to think about what effects that will have on things. But in order to understand that, you need to understand what is being affected and how it functions. It’s akin to … making a shot it pool. Your goal in pool is to use one billiard ball to strike another and hopefully send it into the correct place, but in order to make that judgement, you need to look at the whole picture before the ball you strike enters it.
Okay, that is more than enough preamble. Let us now graduate into today’s topic. Let us move a bit further with this concept. Assuming an understanding of why the research is important is already known to you, this can create a further question that then becomes paramount, especially in a young writer’s mind: how do I do the research?
You know the drill. Hit the jump, and let’s talk about it.
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