July 13, 2011

Writing tips #3: To research or not to research

So we have ascertained that we want to write, and we have a mild idea about what we’d like to write about. That’s great! But, unfortunately, it’s not time to start typing furiously away just yet.

Well, I mean, you can, of course. But sooner rather than later you’ll have to come back to this point. It’s not a very pleasant part of business, and I’d understand if you wanted to shirk from duty as it were... but really, it’s unavoidable.

It’s “research”.

And, before someone asks the question, the answer is: no, research is not something done by historical novelists only. Even if you want to write a sci-fi novel 5.000 years into the future or a riveting fantasy in a world with three suns and one purple moon, you’ll have to research.

I won’t try to make this article long and running, nor will I show you how to use Google – I know that if everyone else went about research they way I do, the world would probably end up with a lot of crazy people out there. It just can’t be healthy to jump from page to page following nothing but intuition while trying to find the speed of an old shipping boat going upriver...

That’s one example pulled from my latest novel, by the way (not out yet, I’ll make a public press release when you can grab it). I always use examples from my own experiences, because trust me when I say that I have made enough mistakes to learn from them by now...

Anyway, as I was saying: for a scene in this medieval fantasy novel, I needed a fisherman to sail upriver, to a town where something weird was happening, and then be back in his village before the day was over and his fellow peasants were suspicious of him. Therefore, I had to look up several things: what kind of speed could the boat realistically make? How long, therefore, for the person responsible of the weird happenings to reach the fisherman’s village on foot?

If you think that the data is unimportant and that you can just make it up, think again.

Nothing will prevent you from saying “25 miles per hour” and “two days”, respectively, of course. But I guarantee that one of your readers will stop to consider, and his reasoning will be something along these lines:

“The boat makes 25 miles per hour and takes a whole day sailing out to the town. Then we can safely assume that it will take six hours to go and six hours to get back, roughly speaking. Which would mean the town is 150 miles from the village. Which would mean, the person causing the trouble would have to cover 75 miles a day in turn. WHAT!?”

Furthermore, according to Murphy’s Law, you will most likely run into a reader who will have some passing knowledge of boating, and his reasoning will be much simpler:

“Today’s tournament sailboats can get to 20 miles with good crew and good variables. This rackety archaic thing should not be able to make more than 7 miles, given the conditions and being generous. Bleh!”

And nothing brings a reader out of a book faster than a “bleh” or “what” moment. It’s cheating them and when a reader has our work in their hands, they don’t like to feel cheated. They want to believe in what we say. It’s our duty to make sure that we know what we’re writing about, so that they can follow the action and get into our crafted world.

I’ve found myself on the disenchanted end of the spectrum a few times as well, for example when reading a combat scene that crossed the heroic into the physically impossible, or when “doctors” from the Middle Ages could diagnose a coma, or when the Celts are portrayed using distinctly Roman weapons. I’m sure you’ve felt the same when an author has touched an issue you know a lot about only to have the facts wrong.

You know how story-breaking that is, right?

Sometimes, you won’t have to stuff everything you’ve learned into your novel. If you have the aforementioned three-sun system, there’s no need to write a chapter about the trigonometric orbit your world has to follow in order to avoid combustion (yes, I tried that whole multi-sun thing once too...) You just have to make sure you know what you’re talking about, and to make sure that what you do write does not go against what you know.

Even if the logic is not readily explained, it is there. The reader will perceive it –give the reader’s brains a bit of confidence, please– so he’ll be immersed in the reading, paying attention to what needs paying attention and not to the details.

Because, let’s be honest: when all is said and done, everything burns down to logic. We expect things to happen logically, and we don’t care whether the system they follow is alien or not as long as it exists. But we can’t create something we do not understand, and that’s why we have to research before we start building our own world or making our plot depend on inner logic-breaking moments.

Yes, I know, I’m not exactly telling you how to do the research. There’re countless ways – read non-fiction on the topic, check out books from the local library, google up stuff, ask someone in a forum where some specialist might be lurking about... I hate to say it, but when you get to it, it’s awfully similar to looking up information for those school assignments we all used to make.

Only, this time, we actually care about the results!

So, come on. Think about what you’ll need for your new upcoming manuscript. Is it medieval jousting? Renaissance medicine? The latest developments in computer science and DNA engineering? Roman campaigns?

And now, let’s see what you can learn about that.


  1. Excellent post! You're absolutely right! Research is essential to good writing. Even if you are writing about something that is unbelievable, you have to provide truth to make it believable!

    Well done...point taken.

  2. Thanks! Writing these little tips is fun, so I'm glad that they serve to remind everyone of some basic things!

    (Or at least, to laugh at the writing attempts that prompted me to write the tips... that's cool too! )