The Skill List Project: Research

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time, I said we’d look at research…so let’s talk about what research is for.

The Purpose of Research

Why do research at all? To me, the most important reason is to make your stories convincing.

By definition, SF deals with settings that are different from the world as we know it—maybe a lot different or maybe just a little, but if everything in a story is accords exactly with the world we see around us, then the story isn’t SF. SF readers are happy to see this deviation from reality; if they couldn’t suspend their disbelief, they wouldn’t be reading SF. Even so, SF writers have to make sure that readers “buy in” to the story and its setting. The last thing you want is for readers to say, “This writer doesn’t know what (s)he’s talking about.”

Research can lay a foundation for being convincing. At the crudest level, research helps you avoid outright gaffes. The science fiction bookshelves are littered with silly mistakes that could have been avoided…and many science fiction readers have lots of science knowledge, so they notice when a writer goofs. Fantasy is similarly prone to slip-ups, often in the details of everyday life in non-technical cultures. For example, some writers don’t really know anything about horses, and their ignorance is apparent on the page. Readers who don’t bat an eyelash when you write about impossible magic may howl in outrage if your treatment of horses is unbelievable.

Beyond just avoiding mistakes, good research gives your writing depth. If, for example, you’ve taken the time to familiarize yourself with horses, you can make a trip on horseback seem more alive. You can provide more details beyond the same old stuff we’ve seen in a hundred generic fantasies. You can work the realities of horse care into the plot; you can make us feel what it’s really like to ride for days and days.

At the very least, knowing what you’re writing about lets you provide color and a sense of ambiance. Even better, doing research can unearth material that improves your story in unexpected ways. The more details and understanding you have at your disposal, the more you can use it with sophistication. For example, many a science fiction story is based on surprising but true scientific tidbits. (One of the glories of being a science fiction writer is that thousands of scientists around the world are in the business of feeding you ideas.)

Kinds of Research

The most trivial kind of research is looking up specific facts. When was tungsten discovered? How far away is Betelgeuse? What is the Celtic word for “sunrise”? These are things you can look up in seconds on the Web…and while we all know the Web contains tons of misinformation, caution and common sense should let you tell the difference between a site full of nonsense and a credible source.

This naturally brings up the subject of Wikipedia. As numerous people have said, Wikipedia is a fine place to begin your research, but a terrible place to stop. The problem is not inaccuracy—Wikipedia isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty good. The problem is that if all you know about a subject is its Wikipedia entry, the shallowness of your knowledge is blisteringly obvious. We’ve all known people who talk like they’re experts on a subject when they actually know next to nothing; if all you’ve read is the Wikipedia article, you’re that guy. And everybody can tell that you’re that guy.

So you have to go beyond Wikipedia…and beyond the Britannica, IMDB, Khan Academy, and all the other quick-and-dirty sources of info. They’re good when you want to look up a specific fact—when you have a clear idea of what you’re looking for and your question has a single right answer—but reference-type web sites only help you with the most superficial type of research.

Good research requires immersion, not just isolated facts. That means reading multiple books, or surveying a host of web sites. That means living with a subject over a course of weeks or months, and seeing it from numerous angles. Usually, it means absorbing specific modes of thinking. Chemists don’t just know a lot of facts about chemicals, they think about matter in a particular way…and those patterns of thought were developed for practical reasons in an ongoing historical context.

The same is true of, say, a feudal culture. There are reasons why feudalism tends to gain dominance in certain places and times, but not others. Feudalism owes its periods of success to history, geography, technology, religion, and many other factors. Those same factors may prevent other forms of governance from gaining a foothold—if you try to write a story about a culture that’s just like Tenth Century France except that it’s a representational democracy, you’ll probably come off looking like an idiot. (Never say never, of course; a clever SF writer can make almost anything work, even if the odds are stacked against it. But this is a challenge you can only win from a position of great expertise, not ignorance.)

So you have to establish a knowledge base. Read lots of books…not just secondary sources but primary ones. Follow the Twitter feeds of people working in the field (writers, experts, enthusiastic amateurs) and subscribe to similar blogs.

Also start cultivating a support panel of experts. You can never know everything about everything, so you need people who’ll help you understand what you need to know and who can read your stories to make sure you got things right.

For example, in my latest novel, my characters have run-ins with the Canadian legal system. I happen to know a retired Crown Prosecutor (the Canadian equivalent of an assistant district attorney) and she’s helped me on a number of issues. She’s also run things past her friends in the police force to get their take on what they’d do in various situations. This gives me more confidence that I’m portraying things accurately…and incidentally, it’s introduced me to several differences between Canadian legal practice and what we see on American TV. The differences are interesting; when I trot them out in my book, they’ll make the story more convincing because it’s obvious I’m not just stealing stuff from reruns of Law & Order. (Writers sound more credible if they don’t rehash the same-old same-old, especially if you can say, “Here’s what the same-old same-old gets wrong, and here’s how things actually work.”)

Research Conclusions

The specifics of research are different for every book, but I hope the general principles I’ve offered will help you with whatever you need to do. (Key concept: Immersion and familiarity, not just isolated factoids.) On the other hand, it’s possible to do too much research, if you spend all your time researching instead of actually writing.

So let’s talk about that next time. I’ve covered most of the skills involved in actually writing stories, so let’s start looking at the skills of having a writing career. Next time, we’ll talk about discipline.

Filed under For Novelists, learning to write, writing life, writing process. You can also use to trackback.

Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.

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