Wednesday, 22 August 2012

How much research do you do?

First of all, apologies for not making my normal rounds of commenting recently. Since my holiday, I've had some work issues to deal with, we've been getting the kids back to school, and I've been generally adapting to the shift in routine (I'm a creature of habit, after all). I'm still getting back to all the commenters on my twisted version of Goldilocks - thank you, I'm overwhelmed by the response! - and I've picked up critiques again for my CPs. As I've begun my redraft of The Memory Cell, I've also been looking closely at the feedback I've had so far.

Now my book deals in part with amnesia, a subject of which I admittedly know very little other than what I have gleaned from online resources (and we all know we can never completely trust these). My CPs haven't said much about it, but maybe a professional in the area would if I sent them the book. But I wouldn't know how to go about such a thing, and they'd be far too busy to help me anyway, wouldn't they?

We've all seen books where the author thanks an exhaustive list of authorities and experts in their acknowledgements. I really admire this approach; it's rigorous and it's clear they've tried to make the book as watertight with facts as they can. My problem is that I tend to research on the fly; what I need to know, when I need to know it, and I can't wait to get back to the writing.

It's funny I should be this way considering I trained as a journalist. Everything had to be as evidence-based as possible. I've still got reams of tapes of all my interviews and notebooks full of shorthand. Not saying I didn't enjoy the process; it was the nature of the beast.

But now I've got no one to answer to (for the moment, anyway) and this is fiction, right? Suspension of disbelief, and all that? It's like the first time I lived on my own at the age of 23. With no one else to take into consideration, my flat quickly fell into horrifying disarray. Luckily my girlfriend (now wife, amazingly), pulled me back into line. Maybe I need that for my work. I'd hate for my book to lose credibility because I got things wrong, and it would only take one person to point it out.

I'm a bit nervous about admitting I'm a lazy researcher, but it's something I'll definitely work on. How about you? How far have you gone in the name of research? And do you think a great story and writing make up for the sin of not having your facts 100% straight?

41 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I think you could find some people with expertise in that area to ask. They'd probably be happy to answer your questions.
Most of my research came from experience, but I did talk to a couple fighter pilots.

Julie Dao said...

I do a lot of internet and book research, but I try to remember to write first and get the story down before getting too caught up in details. I think that's why having a critique group really helps... having several pairs of eyes read your manuscript can help you catch any errors that you might want to research further.

Kyra Lennon said...

I never mentioned the amnesia stuff because I assumed you researched it! :p

I'm like you with research, I want to get what I need and move on - however, when I was learning physiotherapy stuff for Game On, I did hours of research to find the correct treatment for a sprained ankle which was barely even mentioned LOL! I think with amnesia, you will need to have the facts straight, but nothing I've read seemed unrealistic!

J. A. Bennett said...

I think, in part, it depends on the kind of book you're writing. If this is a serious novel about amnesia (i.e. the fault in our stars, serious) then you better have your facts straight. However, if this is more of light-hearted novel with fantastical elements you could probably let it slide. I'd suggest doing the research now or you might end up with an entire book re-write :)

Suze said...

I think (this is just me imagining) that for huge holes of credibility, an editor will step up to the plate on that -- that's part of their job.

For tiny holes in credibility, it is fiction and people are not typically reading fiction for a lecture but for a story.

It's good -- very good -- that you're thinking in this way, though.

Suze said...

You know, come to think of it, when I was writing a novel about a deejay, I visited a local radio station and the station manager for the cluster (!) gave me a tour and answered my questions. There are some peachy people out there, Nick. Go get 'em, tiger.

Cassie Mae said...

I didn't have to do too much research with one of my books, because I'm already pretty savvy in nerd culture. But when it comes to writing scenes that I have no idea how the processes go, I have a million writer buddies who have experienced something or other. :) I haven't written anything I needed an expert in. But research is fun. Or it can be, so make it that way :) When I wrote a scene about a tattoo, something I haven't experienced, the people at the tattoo parlor let me come in and witness a whole bunch. Pretty cool IMO. :)

Louise Bates said...

Oh, I'm a research nerd. I leap at the chance to buy all sorts of shiny new books (or borrow them from the library) about whatever it is I need info on. Which explains why, for a few short stories and novella dealing with spies, my library list has suddenly exploded with books on the CIA. I thought I could keep these casual and light and NOT think about the research - but it turned out I couldn't. Which is actually a problem sometimes, because then either the stories start to sound like research papers, or I get so caught up in research that I never get around to writing, or I get so worried about every detail being correct that I give up on a story I otherwise love. Not good.

Ciara said...

I love research. During my last book I spoke with someone from NASA, a aviation engineer, and a fighter pilot. It was great fun.

S.P. Bowers said...

Research can be pretty important. It's intimidating to begin but if I know an author completely made stuff up and his whole premise is based on false assumptions it ruins the novel. There are small things that I can overlook but the major stuff has to be right.

Elise Fallson said...

If amnesia is a big part of your book, and you're not writing complete fantasy, then you're going to have to do some research to be credible. Other than looking up facts online and checking out books on the subject, you could make a list of questions and try to contact someone in the medical field. Or maybe you could start with your local doctor, ask them some questions, and see if they know others you could turn to. For my wip I have to do some mild fact checking and will need to visit Paris one of these days but than's about it. Good luck with your research Nick, and like some of your commenters have already mentioned, research can be so much fun!

Mara Rae said...

I agree it's important to have basic knowledge of what you're writing, but I also agree that editors are there to help fact-check, and I know how easy it is to get bogged down in a bottomless researching pit. I say learn what you can, but don't make yourself crazy over it :P

Julia King said...

I try to do a bit of research especially when it's something I know nothing about. If my book takes place in a city I've never been to, then I will research it up the wazoo. I'll even research some body ailments or like the amnesia thing (I've got that in a book too). I'm sure not a Dan Brown though. haha

Kim said...

Glad you got the kids back in school and are getting back into a routine... mine start next week and I am counting down the days ;)

I agree with the general consensus of these comments - I think your writing needs to be rooted in reality - but fiction by its very nature sacrifices some "truth" for the story - I'm thinking particularly of courtroom dramas, where if you actually accurately detailed the process it would be too bogged down...

Morgan said...

I researched a TON with my first book, and I feel like most of the time I put into it was wasted, LOL! Like Alex said, I agree with asking experts--you learn a lot more in a quicker period. With my second book, I took a couple out to dinner who had a son in a rehab facility--which is where my book takes place, so it was REALLY informative and helpful. :)

Shannon Lawrence said...

I've had similar thoughts when looking at the acknowledgements in a book. I do my research online, rather than contacting experts and consulting with them, and I wonder if that's good enough for fiction that isn't aimed at being something people are into because of the science. I'd like to say it depends upon the nature of what you're writing. I write horror and urban fantasy, for the most part. If I wrote sci-fi, I think I'd certainly expect myself to really get things accurate, because sci-fi readers want it to be.

In short...I dunno. Sigh. Good luck!

Stu Ayris said...

I guess in terms of research I have up to now written about what I know - drinking, madness and dreaming. I found that writing in the first person helps because basically you can blame any innacuracies on the character as opposed to the author!

I have though just started writing the third in the FRUGALITY series and due to it being very much a journey from Tollesbury to Liverpool, taking in various sites of historic Beatles significance I feel that I should commit myself to the research - or in other words, go to The Cavern, Abbey Road etc and other places I've always dreamed of going to!

Keep up the great work Nick. My advice is don't fret too much about inaccuracies just be guided by your big old heart!

Christine Rains said...

I like to research, but usually my stories don't require a lot. Just a few definite facts if I'm not sure of them already. I can spend too much time on Wikipedia or cruising the net looking at things when I should be writing!

Mark Koopmans said...

Hey Nick,

I knew a fellow once who could help you with the research for amnesia, but I can't remember his name :)

Seriously, I'm also a former journalist and I bet once you dust off your beat reporter fedora (!) you'll be able to find some experts :)

Carrie Butler said...

Ah, research...

As much as I hate to admit it, I handcuffed myself to nearly everything in this house for an abduction scene in one of my books. It was fun explaining those marks... *shudder*

Great post, Nick! :)

Jessica Salyer said...

Nick, depending on the questions you have, I could probably help you, or find out for you. I agree with what others have said, if it's not really fantasy and an important part of your story line... you should probably have your facts straight. The internet has a wealth of information, but be careful where you look not all of its good.

Nick Wilford said...

Alex - I know, but even when I was doing journalism I felt funny about approaching people! Like you say, I'm sure most are happy to help though.

Julie - Yes, and they can also pick up things that you might not have considered because you're too close to the story. Thanks!

Kyra - I'm glad it reads OK. I have learnt about the basics, but as you can guess, I don't think anyone has undergone the "treatment" that is given to my amnesiac (at least I hope not!), so I had better ask an expert their opinion.

J.A. - Not fantastical, no. You're right, I should get it sorted. :)

Suze - Hopefully I only have tiny holes, but preferably there'd be none. Thanks for sharing your experience. I just need to get over the reservation that my writing a book is inconsequential and a waste of their time!

Cassie - Thanks for your story, too. It seems most people are willing to help! And yeah, it's great to have blogging buddies with such a range of knowledge. :)

Louise - Well, your stories didn't sound like research papers to me! I see what you mean though. Like everything it's a balance.

Ciara - Sounds exciting! I'm put to shame. :)

Sara - I absolutely agree. Even if I don't know about the subject and enjoy the story, if I find out later the wool was pulled over my eyes, it taints it for me. I don't want to be that author!

Elise - Thanks for your helpful tips. I very much appreciate it. Going to Paris... now that sounds like fun research!

Nick Wilford said...

Mara - I think it could be easy to become obsessive over it. Put it this way, plot holes and inconsistencies annoy me much more than if a fact isn't completely accurate!

Julia - I set my writing in fictional places - I find that works better for me, but I might change that if I needed a setting to be integral to the plot or feel of a book. What did you find out about amnesia? I don't want to be Dan Brown, so that's fine! :P

Kim - You're right there. I mean look at all the CSI series - they figure things out much more quickly than the reality.

Morgan - Wow, that's good research. I would feel I was being too intrusive by asking them, but if they were keen to help...

Shannon - Well, with your genre, there's a lot more room for creating your own worlds and concepts. So yeah, I think the need for research varies between genres. I've actually had some sci-fi ideas... and I think the requirement is that you write about something that's possible based on actual theories and developments? That would mean some strong research for sure.

Stu - Yep, but my heart will be broken if people dismiss my writing! Your upcoming research certainly sounds enjoyable - a labour of love, you could say. :)

Christine - Yes, it has happened that while researching I've been distracted by other things and gone far away from what I was supposed to be finding out!

Mark - Haha, thanks. :D Yes, I think I just need to brush up those journalistic skills - and get over the shyness!

Carrie - Wow, you don't mess about! Were you trying to experience what the character would feel?

Jessica - Thanks, I may well take you up on that. Do you work in the medical profession?

Lynda R Young said...

I'm a bit of the same when it comes to research. Ocassionally I'll hit a subject I'll need to know more about than a quick check, but that's okay because I enjoy research.

Linda Jackson said...

Good post, Nick. I basically do internet research. If it's on the internet, it has to be right, right?

Seriously though, research is good, because there are some readers who will not overlook a mistake in the facts, regardless of the good writing. :(

Cynthia said...

I think a great story will make up for not getting all the facts straight as long as nothing's very obviously off. I did a lot of research for the last story I wrote, and while I'm glad I got a lot of the details down, sometimes I felt I might've had more fun writing out what I imagine something would be as opposed to adhering to the textbook. Hope that makes sense!

Rose Munevar said...

I follow a medical doctor who writes and blogs. She'll answer medical questions for fiction writers- might be worth a try. She's got a side profile pic on my list of followers if you want to look her up. I have to research a lot too- I'm a nurse, but I write medical things and I'm not an expert in everything. Plus my WIP involves the drug cartel, which I'm definitely NOT an expert on. My Colombian husband helps me on researching that topic, since he still follows the news from that area.

Mina Burrows said...

I guess it depends what I'm writing about. The first book I wrote had a ton of scientific content and I by no means am an scientist or an expert, but I did work in the industry for several years. It's still in the editing phase --you know the never ending editing phase-- but once it is completed, I'll end up having a friend of mine read it to get his science/medical opinion. :)

C.B. Wentworth said...

Accuracy is important, but there's also the "movie logic" that things just need to be believable. :-)

Cherie Reich said...

I suffer from lazy researchitis too. I hate researching. I think that's why I write so much fantasy. It's all in my head then and involves very little fact-finding.

Lydia Kang said...

I once went as far as finding a random professor at the University to discuss whether the Ojibwe dialogue I was using was correct or not. He was nice enough to make a few corrections for me.

Thank goodness for the internet, though!

Freya Morris said...

I HAVE to research. I just feel safer doing so.

I work in a University and I think (secretly) Professors, Drs, research assistants love being asked. One of our Earth Scientist was thanked in a book about the end of the world because she helped the author to get facts right on the possibilities of climate change.

DO IT! Everyone likes to be asked. Try someone who may be less busy, like a Post Doc.

Carol Kilgore said...

Ask on some writers loops if anyone knows a psychologist or psychiatrist who can provide information on different types of amnesia. Ask friends, co-workers.

My opinion is fiction is better when the facts are correct. Also cuts down on letters from angry readers who know something is wrong.

Nice to meet you on Alex's blog.

Annmarie Pipa said...

I enjoy learning something when I read a book...so I hope it is correct information! I was a nurse a long time ago and now when I read stories where the medical stuff is way off, i stop reading.

Jay Noel said...

I do research, but I enjoy having the artistic freedom to take the facts and ask, "What if." You're right, that's the whole basis for fiction, right?

I like doing research to establish a baseline of facts, but what fun is there if I can't make my book my playground?

Lara Schiffbauer said...

My first book was totally fantasy and whatever I wanted to make of the world. It was so fun to write because I didn't have to make anything fit anything else. My current wip has some science in it, and so I have to keep adjusting and readjusting for the facts of the world. It's kind of annoying, actually!

Medeia Sharif said...

I see lists in acknowledgements and wonder about what I'm doing. I do a lot of research, but mainly internet-based, and I get lost doing it. I start looking at tangential topics before I pull myself away to work on the draft. I also do most of my research on the fly.

Mama J said...

It depends what I'm writing. I rarely research much beforehand (simply because I haven't had the need to with the subject matter) but usually look up things as I go along (good old Google style).

Nick Wilford said...

Lynda - I do enjoy it. My problem is I don't like spending too much time on it instead of writing!

Linda - Yep, I know. I don't want to be condemned by anyone! And it annoys me too!

Cynthia - Absolutely. That's how I feel. Like everything else, it's about finding the balance, I suppose...

Rose - I know what you mean, and it occurred to me to ask her after I'd written the post. I've now emailed and had a great answer back! So, progress.

Mina - I would definitely like to have someone read it who knows a lot about that area, at least the relevant sections.

C.B. - Yep, there's loads of movies (and books) that are pretty implausible, but you get swept up in them. If something's completely jarring, though, it pulls you out.

Cherie - That sounds good, but the problem is I don't think I have enough imagination to create the epic worlds of fantasy!

Lydia - Checking with those who know is definitely a good idea, but it can be a time-consuming process. I know this from my student journalism days - I think they considered students less important, which is why I'm funny about approaching people as a writer. Maybe I should label myself as an author...

Freya - Thanks, I'm working on it. Working in a uni must be cool with access to all that knowledge.

Carol - You're absolutely right - fiction is more powerful when it's based on solid fact. Thanks for the reminder!

Annmarie - It puts me off too if I know something's wrong. You and the others have encouraged me to pull my socks up!

Jay - Good point. It's about a balance, but invention is the most fun part of writing.

Lara - If it's sci-fi, though, isn't it about saying what could be possible based on the science of today? That sounds fun to me, but hard!

Medeia - I get distracted too. I do think it would be fun to interview people, and I'm sure people like to be considered as authorities on topics. It's just the time factor!

Mama J - I'm a looker-upper as I'm going-alonger (!) too. I'd hate to think I'd wasted time by finding out loads of stuff I didn't need, even if it's fun to.

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Nicole said...

I like doing enough research that I feel comfortable weaving the topic into my writing. Beyond that, I got some great advice at a writing panel lately: Research 80% of the way on your own, then ask an expert to double check your usage.