Thursday, April 23, 2009

GuestEssay: Look It Up!

Aiding the Willing Suspension of Disbelief


or, Why Research Matters

This meta was sparked by a couple of conversations in which an author who'd made an error of detail defended her failure to fact-check in advance with a variation on: "If I wanted to write realistically, I wouldn't be writing about vampires and werewolves in the first place!"

I've heard similar arguments made by authors in other fandoms -- just substitute "mutants" or "wizards" or "magic" or "space travel." I've heard it used by authors of original fiction -- "It's fiction, not a documentary!" In fandom, it's sometimes coupled with the, "It's just fanfic anyway!" excuse -- but I want to emphasize this isn't just a fanfic argument. Thus, my response is not intended only for fanfic.

Certain elements generalize to good writing, regardless of whether it's for fun or pay. I'll counter the, "It's just [fan]fiction!" excuse with a quote from master-of-the-craft Southern Gothic author Flannery O'Conner:

"Fiction is after truth."

I don't think I've ever made a secret of the fact I have little patience for stories that aren't researched -- regardless of whether it's pro- or fanfic. "Crackfic" doesn't count, as the entire point of crackfic may be that it's improbable or out of character. But otherwise, I don't consider poorly researched or badly edited material "good" -- no matter how popular it might become. I've been at writing and professional publishing over 20 years now; I've earned the right to be bitchy and cranky about a few things. ;>

Now, EVERY author has to make decisions about what level of research he or she is going to invest ... even when writing autobiography (unless one has an eidetic memory). We have to check things, and decide how far we'll go ... and what our resources are. Furthermore, it's neither necessary nor good to "show your notecards" on every page. Research must meld seamlessly with a story. For an example of the "show your notecards" style of writing, see the early Roman novels of Colleen McCullough. For less 'bulky' historical fiction, try Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time, Mary Renault's The Last of the Wine, or Jo Graham's Black Ships. Jo is even "ours" -- a fanfic author turned pro.

I tend to invest about the same level of research in fanfic that I do in profic ... but not entirely. In original fiction, I avoid writing extended/important passages about places I've not been personally -- and as I have control over plot and setting, I can do that. In fanfic, the demands of canon may require me to write about places I've never been -- because I can't afford to travel there! So that's a pragmatic limitation on the lengths to which I'm (not) willing to go for fanfic accuracy. But otherwise, I've got a general commitment to doing my best to "practice the art of getting it right," (to quote historical fiction author Judith Tarr).

Do I always get it right? Of course not. I make mistakes, and I've had readers write to me (in email or LJ comments) to correct an error of detail. In fact, I had just such a letter not long ago related to a line in Grail. It's a minor correction regarding genetic terminology that 99.9% of readers would never notice, but I appreciated the fellow taking his time to contact me and went into the file to fix it. Why? Because I want it as close to right as I can make it. I'm not offended if a reader contacts me to correct a mistake. Please DO. Yes, sometimes I've been "corrected" on something that wasn't a mistake -- and I usually try to explain politely why the corrector is wrong and I'm right, or why that detail may be a matter of debate -- but I don't mind the corrections. I view them very much like I'd view someone catching a typo and letting me know. THANK YOU. You're keeping me from looking foolish.

If I don't take a correction for whatever reason, I generally explain why -- and still don't get upset about it. That goes for comments from my editors, too. As they can confirm, when they give me feedback, I reply to it, and if I decide not to take a correction, I explain why. They put TIME into reading for me, so I will acknowledge that effort and time with a response/explanation.

It's not personal. I never see it as personal.

That's important because I think some authors lose track of that. Critique (as opposed to flames) isn't personal and is usually meant to be helpful. About the only time I'm going to get upset is if you're correcting me in my particular area of expertise, you don't have my credentials, you're wrong, AND you won't accept that I might know more about it that you do. Because that does become personal ... it amounts to the reader telling me I'm an idiot and can't be trusted to know what I'm talking about.

But you know how often that's happened?


At least not in fanfic. It's happened once or twice in other (non-fiction or fandom) venues, but in my own fiction? Never.

The truth is, authors OFTEN write about things they aren't leading experts in. We're the last great generalists. That means we're probably going to make mistakes in something ... and that's okay. We just fix it when we do. I ask a LOT of question in advance when I'm writing, and I often like getting help from experts because I don't know everything (far from it), and I DO like to get it correct. Sometimes I may get frustrated because the answer blows a plot point, or the person giving me information doesn't seem to "get" what I'm actually asking, or they're telling me something I already know ... but those are different issues. (And with the last, I'm just frustrated, not angry as they don't necessarily know I already knew whatever they're telling me. Better to be told than not to be told -- and I may be more worried about figuring out how to say, "Thanks, but I knew that," without sounding like a jerk or ungrateful.)

But there's ALSO a very good literary reason behind getting the details right when dealing with "speculative fiction." (Speculative fiction refers to any story wherein some element is "fantastic." This might be elves and orcs, or tentacled aliens and transporters, or wizards at Hogwarts, or characters with ESP when the ESP isn't presented as delusional or fake. So the term is a bit broader than genre SF/F, and can include the presence of "mythical" creatures (vampires) in otherwise mainstream venues.)

As noted, this all began with an authorial protest that if one is writing about sparkly vampires and werewolves, what does it MATTER if the other details are right? Vampires and werewolves don't exist. The presumption here is that if one thing isn't real, then the story is de facto ridiculous, and therefore it doesn't matter if anything is right. And that, in turn, reveals a disdain / dislike / fundamental misunderstanding of speculative fiction itself ... one the speaker may not even recognize s/he has.

My mother and I used to have a friendly argument about SF/F. Both of us were avid readers, but she could NOT get into SF/F (or anything like it). It was too ridiculous for her -- "not real." She was a grand fan of historicals and murder mysteries. Now this was never disapproval of SF/F as "bad" or "sinful" or even "not good literature." We came from the other side of the tracks -- nothing "snooty" in my upbringing. (g) No, this was a matter of, "That's nonsense!" from my practical and pragmatic mother. She couldn't buy the very idea, so she had no desire to read it and didn't really understand why anybody would want to. It made her laugh.

I hear similar echos from some fan writers, as if they're embarrassed to be reading about vampires and werewolves (or wizards or mutants) -- or even fanfic itself! -- in the first place. It's so silly, I CAN'T take it seriously -- so why bother with fact checks?

But see, one of the fundamental tenets among (the better) SF/F and speculative fiction authors is that BECAUSE the basic premise may be "fantastic" or "not existing (yet) in reality," THEN it becomes that much more important to get the details right and make the characters feel familiar. Why? To allow readers to suspend disbelief about the "fantastic."

It's a delicate juggling act for writers -- meshing the interesting and/or fantastic with the familiar. And different genres have their own unique ways of handling the balance.

For instance, in lit mainstream, because the world is familiar and mundane, the characters or situations often aren't. They're quirky, unique or otherwise worthy of having a story told about them. Why? Well, if the world is our own and the characters are just our neighbors with nothing interesting happening ... why am I bothering to read it? BOR-ing! It becomes the job of the author to entice us. Some do it with quirky characters, some with exciting plots, and some by the magic of making the familiar nonetheless special -- or finding grace in the mundane. But SOMEthing has to make that story worth reading. Otherwise it's just another grunt's dull diary. I'll pass.

With speculative fiction (and I'd also argue historicals) the WORLD is different -- unfamiliar. Either we're on another planet, on a spaceship, living with magic, living with vampires ... whatever it is, it's not our normal, mundane reality. Therefore it becomes important for the characters to be familiar and like us -- people we can connect with. And it also becomes important to get details right that aren't made up.

So, okay, we have sparkly vampires, or wizards, or mutants ... but let's THINK a little about what that means. How does that work out? Maybe it's "magic" but it should still have internal logic. Otherwise it's Just Another Bad Blue-BoltZ Fantasy (tm). Let's look into the details, make it FEEL real. For instance, in X-Men, even if Cyclops can shoot red force beams out of his eyes and fights some dude called The Mole Man (yes, really), if he's riding the NY subway, it should be detailed and particular. In fact, part of the charm of the story is that we have this "fantastic," impossible mutant in a very real environment.

This is the trick behind GOOD speculative fiction -- at least part of it is very, very real. Therefore it's easier to accept what isn't. It helps the reader with that willing suspension of disbelief.

If the details are wrong AND the situation is fantastic ... then it all becomes simply "ridiculous" like my mother saw SF/F generally. Too silly to believe. Too unreal. Too impossible.

So why am I even wasting my time?

If the author doesn't care enough to make me BELIEVE these things exist because the REST of the story feels real, then I'm sure as hell not going to waste my time reading her story in the first place. I want to be seduced, pulled in, MADE to believe. As Fox Mulder's poster advertized: "I Want to Believe."

So help me along. Make the fantastic real. I'll follow you to Middle Earth, or Hogwarts, or the Enterprise ... or even to Forks, WA with sparkly vampires!

Patricia Wrede's great collection of hints, penned for the Science Fiction Writers of America, for realistic and complete Worldbuilding.

Minisinoo is a meta-fandom GODDESS. Period. She writes some of the most profound material in fanfiction and not to mention teh pR0n is not too shabby. Make a habit of stalking her as we do.


  1. Amen and amen!

    I hate the 'it's just fanfiction' argument (it's right up there with 'I spent a whole hour on this story' or 'if enough people like this, I'll write more'). The 'I can't take it seriously so why fact check' argument just grates on me - if the author can't take it seriously, WHY ARE THEY WRITING?

    I'll be bookmarking this essay for future reference - I can only pray that the authors I send here actually read it!

    Thank you so much for a great article!

    (and yes, I'm borderline OCD about getting it 'right' - you're not alone, minisinoo!)

  2. As I first started writing fan fic (first attempt at writing fiction in many years), it was almost like this thought never occured to me. Then as I heard other authors asking what drug Carlisle could give Edward to make him cognizant enough to save Bella and fight James right after having brain surgery or someone pointing out the fact that if I didn't get my character some medicine, she was going to die. So I realized I couldn't really be that lazy if I wanted people to read my stuff. Of course that was after I made Edward a computer genius. That was stupid since know very little about computer stuff. I know alot about cleaning. I should have made him a janitor. Thanks for the article Minisinoo - I still love you even though you told me you had to stop reading my story because I made Bella a gold digger :)

  3. Another whaycky day for me here on TLYDF. That's two days in a row that I've found myself in a writing situation that I then fiind is directly related to the article here.
    Thanks for writing this. I'm currently deep in research for medical terminology whilst trying to meld it with mythical vampire physiology and it's hard. Thanks so much for writing such an important article. And the link to the world building? Just what I needed for my own original novel.

    this is why I read this blog religiously.

    Thanks again

  4. So, this was very intriguing, mostly because I’ve been on the other end of this argument. Notably, I was influenced by the Introduction of The Green Mile by Stephen King, in which he wrote:

    “I felt as if I were creating a world almost from scratch, as I knew almost nothing about life on death row in the border South during the Depression. Research can remedy that, of course, but I thought that research might kill the fragile sense of wonder I had found in my story—some part of me knew from the first that what I wanted was not reality but myth. So I pressed on, stacking words and hoping for a kindling, an epiphany, any sort of garden-variety miracle.”

    I do think that he’s correct that in some cases research can actually be detrimental to the spirit of an author cranking out a story.

    That being said, I think it’s a bit complicated. I do think that many personality types are subject to the “details overwhelming the story.” For example, I think researching disorders is important, e.g. finding out the challenges and everyday realities, but I hesitate over reading first-hand accounts – because while there are common strains of reactions… can we really define human nature as being so uniform? And alternatively, do disorders make a person so different from ourselves that we can’t ever attempt to put ourselves in the character’s shoes?

    Honestly, I’m not sure. And it also depends on whether or not it’s a side-character or first- or third-person. I know that I wouldn’t be comfortable writing first-person from the perspective of a person with a disorder I’d never personally experienced.

    But then, I suppose, if research may hamper the story’s unfolding, the best advice would be to get it all out, and then go back and research after the fact. That way the spirit of the story is present, but the details are placed within the realm of reality.

    I agree completely on the point of suspension of disbelief. If you get stuff wrong, that’s just horrid. I would add that often knowing what not to write is just as important as knowing what to write. The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a brilliant example of this. Sometimes focusing on the human experience is what really, really sells a story.

    And I know this isn’t really a problem in our fandom, but I’ve seen it a few times… seriously, research-lovers, don’t include EVERYTHING from your personal experience/research. Details should enrich a story—not eat it alive. Like Jfly has a weather calendar and sermons written up for Sanctuary… just sorta awesome—but she decided not to include them; thus, they enrich the story beautifully but never overwhelm it.

  5. Love this, thanks for bringing the importance of research to light! And props to your for making discussing why we do research in the first place. Research allows us to write in a knowledgeable manner NOT to parrot facts in a clinical sense, but to allow our readers to feel the events. Great example with Tey's Daughter In Time (that book totally convinced me that the Tudors offed the two princes).
    I did an interview with Sharyn McCrumb (historical fiction writer) last year about her research, and she said something that stuck with me:
    "...She says that fiction fills in the gaps left when certain occurrences, actions, and emotions cannot be verified. Based on her research, she is left to make assumptions. “What kind of pie did Frankie Silver eat on the way to the gallows? I know she DID eat pie and that it was July in western NC, so I’m guessing it was something like blackberry—too early for apple.”

    If we do our research, we can make educated guesses when there is no documentation.

    Awesomely awesome!

  6. Well, I had a nice long reply typed up earlier and then Firefox (and the whole computer!) froze, dammit. So this is the shortened version (believe it or not, the SHORT version, yes).

    First, I'm glad folks found the article useful, and liked it.

    Gondolier -- That's exactly right, IMO, what McCrumb elucidated on historical fiction. AS an historian who actually deals with pop culture presentations of some ancient historical figure from antiquity to now, it's *fiction* that often drives a person's interest in the facts. There is a (mis)perception that people who read fiction aren't *interested* in the facts, but I've found exactly the opposite. Yes, some AREN'T. But I can't tell you how many of my students come to me and confess that they got interested in a college class on XXX topic because of a novel or movie. They wanted to know what was fact and what wasn't. Certainly my mother, great lover of historicals, was exactly the same way. She'd read a historical novel, then go to the library and check out nonfiction books about the era. Fiction makes history BREATHE.

    And that brings me to a couple of Pastiche's points: "I do think that many personality types are subject to the 'details overwhelming the story.'"

    Yes, indeed. There are some who really don't know when to STOP and get on with the damn story. Fiction *isn't* history, or a psych book, or medical treatise, or even a how-to manual on fly-fishing. There's an absolutely WONDERFUL novel called THE RIVER WHY by David James Duncan, published back in the mid-80s ... easily one of THE funniest novels I've ever read ... and among the most genuinely profound. Seriously -- comedy writers? Go find that novel. But I digress. My point is that the novel centers around fly fishing. Duncan did another, later, called THE BROTHERS K that centered on baseball. Neither book is about the sport in question, yet in both the sport is absolutely *integral* to the novel and extremely well researched. Wonderful example of how to weave a LOT of details about a topic into a story ... and not lose the story.

    "But then, I suppose, if research may hamper the story’s unfolding, the best advice would be to get it all out, and then go back and research after the fact. That way the spirit of the story is present, but the details are placed within the realm of reality."

    I think this is true to a degree. It depends on the centrality of the research point to the fundamental plot. The more central ANY detail, the more important it is to research it ahead of time. Otherwise, one might construct a plot based on a fallacious idea that's just impossible. Then one's written a whole novel that's factually wrong at a very core level, but most people aren't willing to chuck a whole novel. Instead, they get defensive about it, "Well, it doesn't matter! It's just fiction!" I think there's where at least some of the aggressive disconcern arises from -- a failure to look up *key* details at the outset, then getting angry when that failure is pointed out. (Meyer's reaction to fans' reactions to the dubious "science" in BREAKING DAWN, anybody?)

    So central, pivotal ideas have to be checked. But smaller details ... well, it might be fairly unimportant to the plot whether people were farming barley or wheat in central Greece in 500 BCE (it was mostly barley, btw *grin*) -- that's something an author could tag to look up later in order to avoid getting bogged down in research. Some people DO try to do too much at the beginning, but as they're not *writing* yet, and may not know what they need to know so the research goes on and on and on. OR they think they have to be absolutely accurate to the point the story becomes impossible to follow. Conflate, Combine, Clarify ... these become important to fiction. It's just like writing dialogue. We don't REALLY write exactly what people say -- a transcript -- or our stories would be full of ums, ahs, run-on sentences, circular reasoning and absurd tangents ... because that's how real people talk! Instead, we create a facsimile of conversation that sounds natural and real without BEING natural and real. The facts and details in fiction, whether it's historical fiction or medical drama is exactly the same. Conflate, combine, clarify. :-)

    (P.S. Smellyia, if you ever want a book rec on Duncan for that series? I'm your gal ... ha.)


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