The Potential (and Peril) of Research

If I haven’t said it before, my genre of choice is fantasy. Mostly contemporary, but sometimes not. For some reason, I prefer a world different from the one I live in, even in some subtle small way. It challenges my mind to think of how living in a different world would feel, and I find it more engaging.

As a writer, I have to admit, one of the reasons I love fantasy is the ability to make things up.

You can create your own government, your own species, your own language, whatever you want. Cool buildings, interesting fashion, a complex religion, a different way of forming families and relationships… It can be as slightly different as a single unusual ability all the way to an alien world. I enjoy that freedom and potential.

And part of me originally thought that with fantasy, you don’t really have to do research. If you write “real” police, someone will know better than you how an actual investigation works, all the steps and paperwork and rules. But if you’re writing magical werewolf police, then no one else knows better than you how it works—and you can make it up to be whatever you want.

However, more and more in reviews and other commentary, I’ve seen people tear works apart on the basis of the smallest bits of realism. You might think because the wound you’ve inflicted on your character is a dragon bite it can produce whatever effects you want, but the med student who knows that puncture wounds in that location and with that treatment would be infected within twenty-four hours is going to be thrown out of your story at that moment. And they might even complain loudly about it—which is absolutely and completely their prerogative.

Part of me wants to dismiss those complaints—I’ll write what I want, and people can think what they want. To a certain extent, this will always be my attitude. But I started to think about what research could give me, instead of the time and effort it takes away.

It would be impossible to research everything about everything, to know every minute detail about how economies work, how biology creates species, how language evolves over time. I mean, I suppose someone much smarter than me could know a lot more, but it would take me the rest of my life (and beyond) to know everything it would take to be realistic about everything—let alone the time it takes to make up everything else. So for the most part, I’m still going to gloss over things, make up stuff, and cut corners in order to maintain my own sanity.

But a bit of research can actually be a huge boost, especially in the planning stages of a story. Beyond the benefits of crafting scenarios that are as realistic as possible, in order to satisfy the readers out there who care and would be thrown out of your story by errors, research can actually give you ideas. Learning about history, religion, language, biology, and other sciences might lead you to inspiration; such as when the fact that atoms are formed in dying stars sparks something in your brain about a single unusual atom being the heart of a star or… something…

And even after you have your primary idea in mind, researching various aspects of the setting or character backgrounds (even if everything’s contemporary) might lead to specific plot points or those extra details that make everything real. Even if you’re writing a realistic story set in your hometown, learning a cool bit of local history might give you an idea for a setting, such as the oldest church in town that was also part of the Underground Railroad. Or knowing that cars… do something… okay, I know nothing about cars, but knowing what might make them break down could give you an idea for a scene where your characters are suddenly stranded.

So what are the perils of research? It’s a bit easy to fall into a combination of perfectionism and procrastination, where you must know every detail about every aspect of your story, from the price of gas in the summer of 1987 in Louisville to the fabric used in nurse uniforms to the exact chemical processes of decomposition. This is where you have to figure out what are important details that will affect your story, your characters, and your plot in a significant enough way that they not only merit mention, but also merit veracity.

This is also where you have to learn to accept criticism. If you have your jogging character wearing the wrong kind of shoes for that terrain, but it’s not terribly important to your particular plot about killer were-wasps, then if someone calls you out on that, you just have to accept it. You are never going to satisfy everyone in every way, so research what’s important, what you care about, and what you find interesting, and then take a deep breath and accept your ignorance of the rest.

Also, find ways to incorporate research into your process in such a way that it doesn’t bog down the early days forever. Research the things that will have a major impact on your big plot points and characters, but leave as much as possible for after the first draft is done. If you have to, put question marks or italicize what you’re not sure about, and come back to it later.

I’m coming around to the idea that a bit of realism isn’t such a bad thing, though I’m sure I’ll still horrify plenty of scientists, historians, doctors, and people who know stuff. Hopefully, they’ll be entertained enough by everything else that it won’t matter too much… 🙂

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About J. Sevick

Just write.
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