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Podcast Transcript: "Let's say I want to do a story about [the] Middle Ages. But I don't want to do my research. Instead, I take inspiration from the things in the game Stronghold. is that okay?"
That’s an exact quote from one of those Facebook writers’ groups I know I yap about way too much. But hey, with posts like that, they clearly give a whole lot to talk about. That sounds very unkind, I know, so let me clarify real quick: There’s a lot of legitimate questioning and answering that goes on there. And I most definitely do not mean to make fun of newbies and newbie questions. Been there, had those myself in the past. And if you don’t ask, you don’t learn.
However, there is such thing as a stupid question, as proven by that research-related post I opened with.
On that note, hi! I’m Jeannette DiLouie, owner, operator and Chief Executive Editor of The Genuine Writer Podcast. This is episode #6, in which we’re going to talk about the need to do research. And, for the record, I am going to get snarky on this one. Maybe even harsh.
If you’re not an expert on the subject matter you’re writing about, then no, it’s not okay to not do your research. It’s not illegal, mind you. Nobody’s going to throw you into jail for your crimes against the facts. But it’s not in any way, shape or form “okay.” It’s lazy, and it doesn’t do either you or your readers justice.
There’s so much to unpack here that I’m not even sure how to proceed, particularly when I'm still all up in arms about the original question. I could go on and on and on about what’s wrong with a society that produces someone who would even think it’s acceptable to ask that question; but we’re talking about writing here and not philosophy, psychology or sociology. Plus, I do recognize that you didn’t tune in for a Jeannette DiLouie soap-box special. So I’m going to do my best to tamp down on my irritation and discuss the subject like a non-irritated individual instead.
Here’s the thing about writing fiction: It might be made-up stories, but you’re still dealing with real facts and factors to build up those stories. That’s a rule that applies to every single genre out there. Even the more “out there” ones. To show you what I mean, I’m going to use my own novels as examples, starting with the least reality-based ones: my Faerieales fantasy series.
To give you the bare-bone details, Faerietales is a contemporary fantasy series, so it’s set in the 21st century and I didn’t have to do any research about past eras while writing it. It also sees main character Sabrina start out in Lancaster County, PA, where I grew up. So, once again, no research necessary. I’m already very familiar with the place. A little too familiar even, depending on the day and my mood. But that’s beside the point.
Now, Sabrina’s a faerie, a type of mythical creature that does have a whole lot of folk lore to its name but doesn’t come with any hard-and-fast facts or figures. So I threw out almost the whole entire guidebook, making my faerie race completely science-based, with no magical abilities and completely human-looking minus the fact that they have wings – which are coated in a biologically created chemical called faetenin that keeps humans from seeing them. Oh yeah, and they can “size change,” the act of shrinking to bug-like scale or expanding to human-sized proportions.
In short, I went full rouge with my fantasy details. Yet you know what? I still did research.
For one thing, I actually did look into faerie mythology along the way. And it was so cool! Definitely worth checking out, especially when it’s given me further insights into novels from other fantasy authors, including Jim Butcher and Seanan McGuire, both of whom get extremely researchy about what they write. But beyond that, Sabrina ends up in Scotland a third of the way through the book and, for the most part, she stays there throughout the series. Since I’ve only ever visited Scotland before, I was able to recall some details to use, looked up a whole heck of a lot more information – and hired a Scottish editor to help me out with the rest.
Otherwise, that series would have been tarnished, looking like a Scottish setting told through an uninformed American’s eyes. That’s not a slam against being American, either. E. L. James most certainly showed what an uninformed Brit she was while trying to write about an American setting in 50 Shades of Grey, mentioning the “boot” of the car instead of the “trunk” and a whole lot of other international mishaps. She also apparently did no research on the BDSM movement according to people who are into that scene, which doesn’t surprise me. I don’t think she did research on anything at all.
Moving away from that particular work of fiction – which I swear I could write two whole master’s theses on: one from a cultural studies standpoint and the other from a creative writing perspective – the point is that there are always things you’re going to come across in your creative writing worlds that are not familiar to you.
“Oh yeah?” you might want to say. “What about if I’m writing epic fantasy in a completely made-up setting with completely made-up characters? What then, you little research Nazi!” Okay. Challenge accepted. How about the issue of gender studies? Or mercenary mentalities? Or battle strategies? In order to write something you’re not going to be embarrassed about later, you need your female characters to come across as realistic females (and this is an issue that many male writers do struggle with, thanks to how complex real women can be, whether delightfully or irritatingly so). The same thing goes for your male characters if you’re not male, your mercenaries if that’s not your normal line of work, and your battle planning if you’ve never seen combat before.
Your job as a fiction writer is to get your readers to suspend their states of disbelief, encouraging them to forget that they’re reading a made-up story at all and just get engrossed in the details already. Which means they have to buy the details in the first place.
That’s always your job as a fiction writer. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. But it’s a job that becomes even more important when you’re writing in certain genres. Like historical fiction, which I’ve also written. (What can I say? I like writing.) Before I started in on Maiden America and its sequels, I thought I was pretty well-versed about the time period, starting with the Revolutionary War. It’s my favorite era to learn about, so I’d already done a lot of reading about it. Especially fiction reading.
As it turns out though, a lot of that fiction reading came compliments of authors who didn’t do nearly enough research themselves. Thanks to them – and, unfortunately, a few historical nonfiction authors too – I had to unlearn a whole lot of things about my stories’ setting, characters, plots and dialogue: essentially, everything that makes a story a story.
With my political thriller series, I had to do research into stuff like military machinations; the ins and outs of making laws; the layouts of D.C. and San Antonio, Texas; and different kinds of guns. And with my Christian fiction standalone novel, it’s set in 1st century Judea, so there were historical, cultural and religious aspects I had to research.
Or how about science fiction? You might have to go delving into the mechanics of space travel, time travel or other technological advances. Mysteries? You’ll probably need at least a starter’s course in criminology 101. Women’s fiction? Literary fiction? Chick-lit? Dystopian? Alternative history? It all depends on where they’re set and who they involve.
Bottom line, when in doubt while writing a book, research. Depending on what you’re doubting, it might not require scouring stacks of books. You might just need to ask someone who’s in the know or check out a few internet sites to see what other people say on the subject. But in many ways, research is what separates the worthwhile reads from the less worthwhile or downright worthless ones. So if you care at all about which category your book-to-be falls into, don’t think you can get away without relying on it.
Not unless you’re writing about a plot, setting and characters you’re completely familiar with. Which, for the record, can happen. So I guess there are exceptions to the rule. But normally, that doesn’t happen entirely.
So happy writing and happy researching, guys! I’ll catch you all against next week.