Researching fiction: Facts, Schmacts

I loath doing research.  It doesn’t interest me in the slightest.  Getting abstruse details right seems an irrelevance in a novel.  People don’t read books to learn facts; it is the emotional truths that count.  But certain fiction writers – almost all men; make of that what you will – have a fetishistic obsession with useless detail.  A character can’t climb into a car without a two paragraph lesson about the workings of an internal combustion engine.  When it comes to the mechanics of a semi-automatic machine gun, they can wax rhapsodic for pages.

I understand this need writers have to share the information they’ve gathered along the way.  After all, why do the research, if you don’t use it?  Well, because it’s boring.
In my last book, Wonderful You, the principal character worked in daytime television, and I made a specific point of not finding out anything about the industry, because it didn’t matter in the slightest to the story I was telling.  However, research is a necessary evil with a historical novel.  You don’t want to write something that couldn’t possibly have happened.  But that doesn’t mean you have to make your readers suffer.  While I was writing Paradise I read a series of textbooks called “A History of Missouri”, and they were as dry and dreary as the title suggests.  I needed to do it, to give me a sense of historical context.  I discovered more about crop production in Missouri in the 1930s than I ever wanted to, but it would have been a very bad idea to put any of it in the book.

big dusty booksThe trick, of course, is to wear your research lightly.  Your readers most likely don’t want to be lectured to, and besides, nobody likes a show-off.  Obviously it helps if the material relates directly to the story you’re telling.  For example, Prohibition, the 1918 influenza epidemic, the Depression and the Vietnam War (to take a few examples) are all episodes which have a material impact on the characters in Paradise, and consequently I had no choice but to delve into these in some detail.  It can be difficult to achieve the right balance between the character’s story and the larger narrative.  My approach has been to write all the historical stuff I think is necessary and then to pare it down remorselessly when editing, so that there’s almost nothing left.  Actually, come to think of it, that’s not a bad approach to take to writing in general.

Comments 2

  1. I think it really makes a difference the audience that is trying to be reached. Sometimes, I feel that fiction is best when it accomplishes both. Although it is mostly guy books for guys, I think that there is an need for some to have an orderly universe in which they read. A case in point is Harry Potter. Although it is a fantastic story, Fiona can actually keep track of the rules of Quidditch, and loves the details. Some people can recite baseball stats, who played on what football (or fotball) team, and some (like me) and recall starfighter make and models. I do find it boring to read only that, without it being a good story. But a good story with some detail helps with some writing. And if the details are incorrect, it does detract from the book. I have to tell you, the one chapter that I remember out of all of the Tom Clancy books I read was the chapter in the Sum of All Fears that described the first second of a nuclear explosion. Crazy, but the detail nuts are out there. Just a different point of view. Thanks for the blog and keep on writing. You have some good reading.

  2. Thanks, Chris. There’s no doubt that a glaring factual error can diminish the pleasure of a reader if it bugs him or her enough. That’s why I had to cowboy up and do the necessary research for this book. Credibility is important – even, paradoxically, where the story is fantastic. And yes, internal consistency (e.g. with the Potter books) is crucial. Actually, I liked your expression more: an “orderly universe”.

    The detail nuts are certainly out there. All I can tell you is that novelists have a much easier time of it than our non-fiction colleagues. One of my best friends wrote a very funny book about Children’s TV. I think he’s still getting irate correspondence about it, years later. It depends on the subject matter, of course. Heaven help you if you make a mistake about Star Trek…

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