Sunday, September 4, 2016

Beware! (Bill Cameron)

Research is dangerous. I mean that in every possible sense of the word.

The biggest problem, I believe, is everything is interesting. Well, except CrossFit. But everything else. Seriously, pick a topic and start digging in. Do a deep dive, and you’ll discover no end of fascinating rabbit holes to wriggle into. (Speaking of, you know what’s interesting? The natural history of rabbits! Also Watership Down.) 

Quantum mechanics, how lace is made, the socioeconomic factors behind the price of grain in early 16th century Bavaria? All fascinating when you dig into them.

And what’s wrong with that? you may be asking. Why, nothing, if the price of grain in 1516 Bavaria is your thing. But it’s a potential source of trouble if, say, you have a book to write. Because once you start down those rabbit holes, the research can take the place of other things you need to do, like write the next scene, and the the scene after it, and the one after that. 

You may tell yourself, “My historical YA about the politics behind the Reinheitsgebot depends on me understanding the political dynamic in the Holy Roman Empire that led to the reunification of Bavaria, sure, but don’t I also need to know the deeper historical context?” The next thing you know, you’re all the way back in 974 translating a brewing license granted by Emperor Otto II to the church at Liege. But what does that have to do with your YA set in the duchy of Munich in the early 1500s? Not much. But, sheesh, how fascinating!

But perhaps, unlike myself, you’re disciplined about your research. As curious as you may be about ol’ Otto II, you know he doesn’t have anything to do with your particular historical YA. Yet this leads to another danger. Because what if you cover what feels like the necessary information, but because you’re also committed to your word count (good writer, *pats head*), you set the research aside before you got to a critical detail? 

Maybe you gave up on the historical YA in favor of a YA thriller set in the present, and when the big reveal happens—the school principal is in fact an agent of the Russian FSB—and he pulls his handy Glock on our intrepid heroine, you have Agent Principal thumb the safety. Except OMG Glocks don’t have that kind of safety, and besides a Russian agent would probably be armed with a Makarov, right? (Well, maybe not if you YA is set somewhere other than Russia itself.) My point is you are going to get lots of angry emails about that safety thing.

So, too much research is risky, but not enough research is also risky. Could someone tell me what the right amount of research is?!

Please?

And when do you do this research anyway? Before you write the actual novel? During? After?!

Sometimes I get an idea and want to just start writing, even though I know I’ll need to do research sooner or later. One of my books included a pig farm as one of the settings. When I started it, I relied heavily on my own memories of working on such a farm in high school, figuring I’d go back look up a few details sooner or later. Yet because I was caught up in the writing, sooner became a lot later, and before I knew it I was on the final draft and under deadline before I remembered to do my pig farm refresher course.

Oops.

It wasn’t so much that I’d misremembered life on the farm, though there was a little of that. It was that pig farming had changed in the 25 years since I’d last worked on the farm. Furthermore, I’d set the pig farm in my novel in a part of the country that really isn’t suited for raising pigs.

Double oops.

I was kinda stuck, what with the deadline and the fact there was no way to move the farm in my book to a more appropriate area without doing a major overhaul. There was just no time. All I could do was clean up what I could, send the book off, and hold my breath until the emails rolled in.

Actually, they were pretty nice emails. People said things like, “I enjoyed the book, but I live in the area depicted, and there aren’t many pigs here, and definitely not on the kind of farm you described.”

In retrospect, I should have done my research sooner. But I got into the writing zone and didn’t want to disrupt my momentum. Sometimes it goes that way, and honestly, I don’t really regret how things worked out. Most readers didn’t notice the inaccuracies, and even if I had gotten all the pig farm stuff correct, something else probably would have slipped through. Something always does.


So, research pitfalls: too much, too little, too early, too late. Have I missed any? Probably, but I’ll have to research them.

9 comments:

  1. So true! "Everything is interesting." You know, though, if a book is engaging and satisfying, readers seem to be a little more forgiving of the minor details.

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    1. That's very true, Holly. I've had cops tell me they enjoyed my mysteries, and when I admitted to them I got a few points of police procedure wrong, they'd say, "Eh, it was no big deal. Nobody's perfect." :)

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  2. For me, it started back when gopherspace was what we had instead of web pages and hopping around in there was akin to following the White Rabbit. I got lost more times than I can count and never did look at alt.cowtipping. Great post to illustrate not only the lure, but the necessity.

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    1. It's so much easier now, though the internet is also a great source of misinformation. I still use the library, especially when I need to do a deep dive. But thinking back to when research meant hours upon hours in various periodical indexes before you could even get to actually reading about a topic makes me really appreciate how quickly we can now get at least an overview!

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  3. Ah yes, the trap of Research Rapture. So seductive!

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    1. "No, really, I've been 'writing' ALL day!" :D

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  4. True story, Bill. What if I'm researching to keep from writing? But what if I just missed that all important detail that makes this story completely implausible? I think most readers are forgiving, as Holly says, if the story is good. I know I try to be a generous reader.

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    1. I try to be a generous reader too. I suspect most readers are, even when something related to their particular expertise isn't quite right. One or two complaints can feel huge, but we have to remember that most people won't write an email that says, "You got this one thing wrong, but I actually didn't care."

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  5. What a great post! I want you to know I did indeed research quantum computing and quantum mechanics and next thing I know, it's September. So yeah -- proceed with caution. :)

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