Good Research: Passing the Smell Test
By Evan Braun
After my last blog post about the importance of conducting thorough research, I got enough good questions that I figured it was worthwhile to write a follow-up. The underlying question is this: how much research is the author responsible for, as opposed to the editor?
The answer is that the editor does his or her best to catch errors, inconsistencies, and overall implausibility, but at the end of the day it’s the writer who bears ultimate responsibility for the final product. In a lot of cases, the editor is likely going to assume that the writer has done their homework, because the only alternative is to question everything, which is not practical. Editors, after all, tend to choose their battles very carefully. So if the writer hasn’t done their homework in some key areas, the manuscript is going to suffer.
Nonetheless, as an editor I do my best based on my areas of expertise. For example, I’m especially savvy in the subjects of geography, history, and theology/biblical studies. But without thinking to check, I won’t have any idea if the author got his or her descriptions of Chinese fashions right, for example. If I was personally writing a scene that took place in Beijing, you can bet I’d have researched that.
I was talking about this issue with Amy Groening here at Word Alive Press, and she pointed out that her fiancé’s pet peeve is when software programmers and hackers in TV and movies start spouting gibberish that makes no sense to actual programmers. This one in particular bothers me, too. So obviously there are some major examples of poor research in big-budget, mainstream productions that you’d think would have the budget to avoid these sorts of problems.
So where should an author draw the line at how specialized they expect their audience to be? Let me share a personal example.
At the book launch of my second novel, The City of Darkness, a reader who I didn’t know personally mentioned to me at the signing table how accurate my descriptions of the Giza pyramids were; he had visited the site more than once and wanted to talk about it with me, having assumed that I too had been there. I hadn’t, which surprised him, but when writing that section of the book I had looked at site maps, photos, tourist blogs, and at least one scientific journal. That time and effort paid off. And I’ve had some similar experiences with people who have been to the Tiahuanaco ruins in Bolivia, which I also wrote about.
With any book of significant reach, you’re guaranteed to attract some readers who happen to have specialized knowledge in fields that do intersect with your book’s content. It won’t be the majority, of course, but it will probably be a sizable enough minority that you want to make sure you cover certain bases.
Last month, I offered a hypothetical about making up street names for New York City instead of researching the real ones, or getting the size of Central Park wrong. This is a pretty big blunder, as a large number of people reading your book will either (1) live in New York City (it’s a very populous city) or (2) have visited it enough to know that your descriptions don’t pass the smell test. So at minimum, jump on Google Earth and map out your action and main settings.
When you’re writing about another country or culture, do some research on some popular cuisine so that you can confidently describe the food and drink. Check to see what the weather is like at the time of year in question. What language is spoken there? Or consider this: are there any common turns of phrase that mark someone from a particular region? After all, the people in Newfoundland sound different than those on Vancouver Island.
Do your characters have unusual jobs? What is their area of fictional expertise? If your character is a criminal defense attorney, then consider taking some time to read about actual attorneys and real-life cases. Get the jargon right. Same goes for emergency room doctors or hostage negotiators or airline pilots. Avoid making up what you don’t know; instead fill in your knowledge gaps with real-life fact.
Remember that it’s all about creating an immersive experience for the reader. You don’t have to be perfect, but do your due diligence. When the research pays off, as mine did at my book launch, you’ll know it was worth the trouble.
About this Contributor:
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. Braun is an experienced professional editor, and has worked with Word Alive Press authors since 2006. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.