The wish of getting published can push unseasoned writers towards writing what’s currently in demand, or what they perceive as being easiest. But have they done their homework? Successful writers write about the things they know, and when they need to acquire new knowledge for the purpose of the story, guess what they do? That’s right; they research it. If a person naturally channels their passions into a particular area, or a subject, or a historical period, it will only be normal that they will build a sound knowledge of it over time, which will automatically transpire on the pages of their book when they write about it. This is more obvious when dealing with non-fiction, of course. In good conscience, you cannot write a book on fishing, swearing that the best method is to throw dynamite sticks in the water, just because you saw it done in Mr Crocodile Dundee II.
Having said that, the epidemic of fake news which many people take as dogma is still growing fast… though that says more about the readers than the writers. In fiction, especially in fantasy, reality can be blurred, but when it does, there is always (or there should be) a solid explanation as to why things are different (and I don’t mean boring exposition, but inherent logic). Science Fiction is another one. Not all SF books belong to what we call ‘hard SF’, distinguished by the abundance of accurate science – obviously, we are still imagining what the future is going to be like, and we take certain liberties, but in hard SF you keep your liberties anchored to the most logical and sound scientific possibilities. When we move into character building and start to attribute layers to them which require some knowledge, you’ll need to know what you are talking about, or you’ll make them unbelievable and easy to pick apart, especially if the reader in question shares the same situation. Let’s look at a couple of examples. These days, people are better at discussing mental illnesses and, especially when it comes to YA, there is a demand to have more characters who are going through this type of struggle. Now, saying that a character is depressed, cannot simply be resolved with sad, puppy eyes, sighing and sobbing. It cannot be resolved either, with an hyper-joyous one, just because you heard through the grapevine that people with depression masquerade their condition by acting cheerfully. And then, aside from these two scenarios, sprinkled at irregular intervals throughout the manuscript, your character acts as if nothing was wrong and their actions weren’t influenced in the slightest by their condition. If your reader does indeed have depression, they will see right through the charade, close the book and possibly burn it. Another example comes from writing LGBTQ characters because it’s “in”. In Luna Press Call for Papers 2016, ‘Gender Identity & Sexuality in Fantasy and Science Fiction’, I had the privilege of publishing papers dealing with this issue. Two of our authors, Cheryl Morgana and Hazel Butler, although approaching the topic from different angles, expressed the view that often these type of literature is written by people with no direct/personal experience of the LGBTQ life. Moreover, books where such characters are portrayed, are written with an audience in mind who doesn’t share the same experience.
This, of course, leads to a lot of inaccuracies as well as perpetuating the ‘zoo effect’ whereby the reader is looking in, rather than feel or empathise with the character and where a lot of needless explanations are given, removing the possibility of a natural setting. Research is something I enjoy very much. It could be calculating how many hours can a horse ride a day, or how many KM a person can walk per day, especially when carrying armour, or how fast can a 13th-century sailing boat cross the Mediterranean sea. You get the drift. To me, it makes sense to have these type of info so that I can plan my scenes accordingly. I don’t need to tell the reader about the minutes of my calculation, but they will transpire through the pages. Can I use the words, “They arrived a day later…” if my characters are journeying 400 miles on horseback and leave less than 24 hours before? Can they physically make it? If they can’t, YOU need to know and choose your scenes sequence and wording accordingly. The readers feel in good hands, I believe, if they know you have done your homework and speak with some authority. Historical Fiction is another example of the importance of the writer’s knowledge. When I read James Clavell, for example, I know that as well as being entertained through his skilful storytelling, I am also learning – it’s part of my expectations as a reader of historical fiction.  Yes, ultimately it is ‘fiction’, you need to remember that, but made more believable by his historical knowledge. Alternate History is a different kettle of fish, placing more emphasis on the ability of the writer to take history and manipulate it to explore ‘what ifs’; still, once again, it requires the understanding of actual history, to develop the plot around it. Another example, this time from ‘The Stand’ by Stephen King, is an example of research put to good use. In this book, we deal with groups of people who have survived a world epidemic and are trying to regroup and rebuild a life. At some point, a character is in dire need of an appendectomy, something that in most cases is easy peasy and you are in and out of the hospital in one day. But, in the circumstances our characters find themselves in, even an appendectomy becomes brain surgery, and they have no doctor among them. So they find a book on medicine, look up the instructions and follow them. King empowers the character with the minimal knowledge required to advance the plot and build the terrifying atmosphere of a fallen modern world, which is sound and more than enough. Keep in mind that when he wrote ‘The Stand’ there was no Google search, so he will have had to ask a doctor friend or go to the library and find a medical school textbook. With that small input of research, he also made the reader ask, ‘What would I have done in that situation?’ In all my years of cons going, talking to established, successful writers of all ages, I have never met anyone who said, ‘Oh you know, I just swing it’. Especially when you write Science Fiction, which is the genre I’m mostly in contact with, swinging doesn’t cut it. Ultimately, I believe you owe it to your readers. If you’ve chosen writing as your path, you do it properly, you prepare. Go to the library, hit the net with purpose, ask your ‘expert’ friends! What is your experience with research? Feel free to share it with us!
Thanks for reading!