Friday, January 23, 2009

My Love/Hate Affair with Research

I came up against the great Research problem yesterday. It doesn't matter if I'm writing fantasy, historical fiction, westerns, or like now science fiction, eventually I always come up against that wall where I know something but not enough, or even that I know nothing at all. That means taking the time, and I rarely have enough of that nowadays, to do a little digging. But even if I groan with frustration at my lack of complete and instant knowledge of everything and anything, in the end I always cave in and do the leg work.

In order to create believable fictional worlds (that are not entirely self-indulgent) it is essential to get the facts right - or at least plausible.

I was having a discussion with a friend just the other day about terrible movies (I was loathing Sweeny Todd because of the Stephen Sodenhiem score, amongst other things) and he started mocking The Lady in the Water. One of his major beefs with the movie was the scene where Paul Giametti spends ten minutes underwater swimming around without needing to breathe. Now this scene really really pisses him off. He was quite vocal, maybe even for ten minutes about how ludicrous this is. Now you need to remember or be aware (if you haven't seen the movie) that the premise of The Lady in the Water is fantasy. She's some otherworld creature that's been stranded and there are monsters trying to get her.

None of this bothers my friend - and it shouldn't. What bothers him is the character of an ordinary human guy swimming around and around not needing to breathe with nary a sound byte of explanation. It broke the believability and took him out of the magic. Ok, potential magic, because we are talking about The Lady in the Water here which has far more flaws than a few logical discrepancies. It broke the rhythm and ripped dear viewer out of the illusion the movie makers were trying to create. By comparison it all became silly. That is what you really don't want to do when you writing fiction.

They say "write what you know" and that's a bit misunderstood at times. Obviously you can't just write what you know experientially in this life or we wouldn't have Jules Verne or J.R.R. Tolkien. Verne never went to the moon and Tolkien probably never met an elf, but in either case these writers went to great lengths to create something believable for their readers. Verne may seem dated now but to his Victorian readers his science seemed magical but perhaps plausible in a world that was rapidly changing faster than it ever had before, and with that he was able to draw them along into imagining the fantasy, strongly enough that people still enjoy reading Verne today. Tolkien went even further. It wasn't just the magic of his words and the consistency of his vision, but the amount of erudition he added to it, from his creation of new languages as a master of linguistics to his knowledge of the folklore of Europe. In the background of his own stories were copious amounts of back-story crafted from his imagination wedded to existing traditions.

Yesterday, for my latest vision, a science fiction story set not to far in the future that asks what happens if we were plunged into a nuclear winter for twenty or so years, had me spending two hours reading about the Coldstream Guards so that I could create a believable character who is a Lt. Colonel in the Coldstream in this grim London landscape that I and my fellow collaborative writers are working on. If I just fudged it, using my limited knowledge of the British military, at least one of my fellow writers (British of course!) would find my stories to be unbelievable. Lord knows how many potential readers I would put off and alienate. I might never use more than ten percent of what I have read about the Coldstream Guards, but the important thing is that I know what my character would or would not do, what rank is reasonable, whether it was likely that Coldstream Guards would have survived as a regiment, etc.

There is no single story I can think of that I have ever written where I haven't had to dip into at least a smidgeon of research. Even for contemporary stories I need to research law, forensics, the cultures of other ethnic groups from my own, or how to site a good well. My most casual story will include me look up medical facts, how a hospital runs, or even how long it takes for a person to die of thirst.

It is all in the details.


Eric S. said...

So true, who was it that said "fiction must be believable unlike real life which can be and is quite unbelievable at times".

This is one of my reasons for not posting some of my fiction. I feel that my story line is bordering on the unbelievable.

Helen Ginger said...

A fictional world and fictional characters have to be as believable as, well, the real world. You don't want anything to pull the reader out of the story.

Great post. I enjoyed hearing about all the research you do. The nonfiction book I'm working on now is probably 90% research and 10% writing. Once I have the research done and all the interviews transcribed, then the writing is fairly easy. It takes time, yes, but the research helps me know the subject.


Pan Historia said...

Thank you both for your thoughts!

I didn't even touch how much money research has cost me over the years or how many books I cart around with me.

Thank god for Wikipedia - though it is good to check your facts.