Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Importance of Research

I'm known around these parts as the guy who does mounds of research on seemingly unrelated topics. My favorite list includes the following: Ancient Chinese Weapons, Victorian Social Structure, Weapons of the 18th and 19th Centuries, Steam Engines, Victorian Clothing for Men and Women, Victorian Building Materials, and the logical progression of a thunderstorm. I also instigated a discussion on Twitter about the proper usage of a grappling hook ... but that's not important. The reasoning for why I research these things is simple really, and a powerful truth that any writer should acknowledge.

You Don't Know Everything

Invariably, there will be a part of your novel that the story requires, but you know nothing about. Case in point -- in CALLARION AT NIGHT, there's a scene where Moriah (the MC) is being tortured in a fairly gruesome way. Now, I know very little (read:nothing) about the mechanics of torture, the best feasible kinds of torture for the situation, or really where the best places are to make deep cuts so the subject will bleed without dying.

I do, however, have friends with medical knowledge enough to bounce ideas off of. They'll be able to tell me in enough detail where I'm completely off base or whether I'm spot on. With research, you gain this same ability.

Say your steampunk aeronaut flies a giant balloon across the world. Well that's all fine and dandy, but how does the flying machine actually work? Pedal power? Steam power? Some kind of magical source that amounts to authorial handwaving? And what does the balloon look like?

Research answers these questions about power sources and mechanics and such. If you did a good deal of research on this topic, you'd find that the size of the balloon needs to increase every time you had extra weight. Soon you end up with either a balloon roughly the size of Montana or some sort of handwaving that amounts to praying the reader doesn't notice the implausibility of the machine.

Because for every author who does that, there's a reader like me who will dislike the book because he or she can tell the author didn't do a scrap of research on the topic. And sometimes, research will even bring up a new plot point that you hadn't thought of before. Double whammy, that.

17 comments:

Amalia T. said...

I consider learning Icelandic to be, in a roundabout way, research for future books. I also got three huge textbooks on Bronze Age Europe for Christmas by way of my need for researching a setting which only lasts for three chapters in my book. You never know when you might need more information! Besides, researching is one of the best parts!

L. T. Host said...

I love researching, but there's a good reason I don't write steampunk :) An engineer, I am not.

Research helps, though, and I feel the same way-- when I find an erroneous fact or impossibility in a book, it immediately discredits the author to me.

Davin Malasarn said...

Excellent point about good research bringing up new plot points, Matthew. I think often the more accurate we are the more complicated our stories become, and often that makes the emotions of a story so much richer.

Maybe you should do a post on how you research?

Susan R. Mills said...

Well, you know how I feel about research, but I do it when necessary. I actually have developed a couple of new plot points after having done research on a subject. I hope I never annoy my readers by not putting the effort into learning about something I don't know.

Matthew Delman said...

Amalia --

Spoken like a true research aficionado. I excuse much of the random research I do by saying that it'll come in handy at some point.

There are least half a dozen different books I've purchased simply for research purposes. That number will probably grow.

L.T. --

You don't have to be an engineer or engineering-minded to write steampunk. It can help, but it's not needed. Research and knowing who to ask for help can take the place of a lot of other knowledge.

Davin --

My "process" is a very amorphous kind of thing, truth be told, when it comes to research. I'll certainly talk about it somewhat if people really want to hear. It's not codified by any stretch of the imagination though, so fair warning.

Matthew Delman said...

Susan --

Lack of adequately researching part of their story is one of the biggest sins I think an author can commit.

Readers have enough of a varied experience that, if you try to make something up, someone will catch you out. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.

Lady Glamis said...

Research is one of my favorite parts about writing. I think one of the most interesting things I've researched was weather or not you can survive by drinking your own urine...

I didn't end up using that in my book, but I did use something about termites that was ridiculously difficult to find any information about online. Sometimes the best research is going out and learning something on your own. I don't often get to do that, and I'm not about to go drink my, you know...

That was a strange comment. Sorry.

Matthew Delman said...

Michelle --

You should hear some of the discussions I had with people in college. Drinking one's own urine pales in comparison to some of those.

Lady Glamis said...

Well that's comforting, Matthew. I won't tell you about the termites.

Iapetus999 said...

Oh shoot--my airships need balloons?
Well there goes the manuscript. Thanks a lot, smarty britches!

Bane of Anubis said...

Some research I absolutely despise, but I usually enjoy the historical research... learned lots about the Aztecs (i.e., the Mexica) recently, even learned a bit about pronunciation, though those names are still crazy hard to pronounce.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Ohhh... I should have added this to my list on yesterday's post. I will put a book down if I can tell an author didn't do their research. The same goes for movies. I detest Troy because they trashed Homer and didn't do much research on the time period of the Trojan War. Blecch.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

Great post, Matt, and you are absolutely right about the need for good research. Readers can see right through the B.S. :-)

Susan Quinn said...

I wrote a romance that included a scene where a recruit was going though a gas chamber test during basic training. One of my readers wanted to know if I was in the armed forces, because she was and she thought the gas chamber scene was spot on. I was thanking my stars that I'd done my research.

Your readers will totally catch you out.

I find myself researching things I think I already know, yanno, just to make sure. But it's gobs of fun! :)

Elana Johnson said...

Oh, I'm one of those who doesn't like to research. I try to write worlds where I get to make everything up besides gravity and go from there. Then I don't have to know anything about anything. Sometimes it works. ;-)

Steph Damore said...

Wait, wait, wait. I don't know everything? Are you sure about that?

Okay, I'm kidding. Research is important. Half the time I don't know what I don't know until I go to write about it. It's fascinating how much randomness I learn with each novel I write. Good times.

Jemi Fraser said...

For the most part I enjoy research - I've always liked learning new things. But I like making stuff up too :) Hopefully I've got the balance right!