Au contraire, my little writer ducklings. (My librarian friend once said I collect new writers like a mama duck does her ducklings. If I didn’t already have a name for my company/blog, I’d have done something with that…) Research is necessary in all facets of writing, including fiction.
Consider this. My writing group consists of five women. Among us, we are writing picture books, middle grade novels, and YA novels. We’re writing “problem” novels, fantasy, slice-of life vignettes. One of us just started bringing in an adult novel. (Adult, as in not-a-children’s-book. Not adult as in… adult).
We’re all over the writing map.
Take a look at the type of things we’ve researched:
- Borderline personality disorder
- How quickly does a horse travel
- Date rape drugs
- How to get gum out of clothes
- Cystic fibrosis
- How to raise a puppy to be a guide dog
Why do you have to do research? Because memory is a sketchy thing and we may not KNOW what we remember as well as we should. Because if we only “write what we know” our writing will be limited to ONLY what we know. Because our readers may know more about what we’re writing about than we do, and that may make our writing unreadable to them.
Memory is sketchy.
If you’re writing something based off your memories, you should always double check with a little research. Memory fails. It is never as accurate as you think it is (just ask your sibling about the major holiday you celebrated when you were eight. Guarantee that your sib will remember something you didn’t). It’s colored by the emotions you experienced when you “made” the memory. It is subject to what you understand at the time you create the memory.
A little research will add clarity and depth to what you’ve remembered. It will correct anything you misremembered (or misunderstood). It’s worth the hour or so to double-check your facts before you get dinged by a reviewer (or refused by an agent/editor).
Write what you know.
“Write what you know” is pretty standard advice for new writers. Arguably, sticking with that advice will prevent any science fiction from being written. Arguably, sticking with that advice would have prevented Justina Chen from writing North of Beautiful. Chen is an Asian-American writing about a tall, thin, athletic, blonde, blue-eyed all-American girl born with a large port wine stain covering half her face. Chen doesn’t know that life so how does she write about it so beautifully?
As she said herself during a SCBWI conference I attended a few years ago, she felt it. And then she did her research. She knew what it felt like to be alone and lonely; to be isolated because of how she looked; to try whatever she could to put her looks behind her.
Then she did her research. How to surgically remove port wine stains. How to cover them up using the special physician-recommended makeup. How many people have port wine stains and where on the body they usually appear.
Perhaps that advice should be, “Write what you feel and research the rest.” Research will broaden your horizons and therefore your story possibilities.
Readers are smart.
If you write a story and share it with one or two people, or publish it and share it with 5000 people, chances are good one of those readers will be familiar with whatever you’re writing about. And if you don’t do your research, they’ll know it. Before The Boy was born, I wrote a (really bad) fantasy novel. I asked a few people to critique it. I had a necklace in the novel that had been made of carved gold. One critiquer kindly pointed out that isn’t how it worked and educated me. Another critiquer bitch-slapped my writing in general and my novel in particular because of the mistake.
Expanding that idea: well, some readers will be kind. Others, perhaps those who hold the future of your novel in their hands, will just refuse it.
So, do your research. It often takes just a half hour or so to double-check what you already know and ensure it’s correct. That research will add the necessary verisimilitude to keep a reader involved in your story, to trust your author knowledge and expertise, and to seek out more of your books.
Need help with research? Next Monday’s post will cover how I do it. May be useful to you, too.
(Like how I snuck in “verisimilitude” in that last paragraph? I do love that word.)