A to Z Challenge 2013

Friday, May 29, 2009

Research - How Much Should We Do?

I got to thinking about this thanks to a post by Lost Wanderer. Her post involved writing what you want to write, remembering to use the passion you have to get the story out. Don't ask me how I got from that post to this tangent, but that's how it worked out. One problem I sometimes have when coming up with an idea is realizing how much research I might have to do to get it right. For example, my current WIP involves a number of issues, such as alcoholism, homelessness, and child welfare. And that's just some of the issues that affect the MC. So how deeply do I research the topic? I want my readers to really feel they are in the situation, that they are side-by-side with the MC. But I don't want to deluge them with facts either. While it might work well enough for Tom Clancy, it's really not the style I'd like to adopt.

I have a short story I'm working on that I shared a while back, and I had initially intended to tie it in to real world concepts and ideas. My fears of getting too much wrong or treading on truly sensitive material however, have made me change my mind. I'm now planning on making the entire material fictional in nature. It might mirror other real concepts, but I don't want to go through the pain of research in order to tell the story.

The question I pose here is how do we as writers deal with research (in fictional works)? Sometimes the sheer amount of information available to the populace makes me blanch at the thought of including any of it, if for no other reason than the worry of getting any of it wrong. Since I'm a new author, I wager there will be much less tolerance for error than if I were say, Stephen King. Of course, he probably wouldn't get much wrong either, but that's beside the point. How do you deal with research in your writing? How much is enough (or not enough)?


jessjordan said...

Eek! Research. It happens quite often that I get a really nifty (who uses that word, really?) idea in my mind and put fingers to keyboard, only to get about 2k words in and realize ... I don't know anything about this subject/character quirk/mental disorder/supernatural ability. And so the great online search for answers begins.

The amount of research I do varies based upon the subject I'm trying to learn more about.
Serious medical issue/disorder = serious medical research ... or I call up my almost-psychologist younger sister to pick her brain. (I'll ask her something like, "So, if something bad happened to my character when she was a kid, could she repress those memories until she was a teen, when something would happen to set it off--and yeah, can you go ahead and tell me what that something would be??)
The name of that do-hickey thingy on that whatchamacallit = questioning my poor, poor hubby and expecting him to know the answer.

But ... if it's supernatural-related, I try not to rely too much on what's written by others, b/c then the reader will just roll his/her eyes and say, "ehh ... they did that on Buffy [insert another show or book title, if preferred] AGES ago ..." or "Seriously? That is SO Twilight-wannabe!"

Sorry. I'm rambling. I blame it on my I've-worked-all-week-and-now-have-Friday-insanity blues.

beth said...

I think you need to research enough to build a believable world for your character.

When do you know enough is enough? When you can realistically see your characters there, can add those details that make him interact with the world.

Liana Brooks said...

It depends on the book.

For anything historical there is not such thing as too much research. Even for the historical fantasy I have as a pot boiler I want everything to be as accurate as I can within the framework of the world I'm creating.

Place names, languages, mythology, beliefs, weapons, tools.... I need to have a solid grounding in that before I can add anything more.

For science fiction a basic understanding of physics and how things work in my universe is paramount. Since I write stuff verging on biopunk I have researched genetics. But I took the classes before I wrote the book, so I'm not sure if that counts.

For everything else.... it depends on what kind of real world tie in you want. If you want to create a fictional town somewhere, fine. But if you take a known place, religion, group, or country it better be accurate or your book will be used for kindling next winter. Even if it isn't non-fiction, I want a book that has solid facts behind it.

The only exception is fantasy. And even then, if you're basing your fantasy on a mythology or religion, you better be dead on or I'll be upset. The few times I've dabbled with modern fantasies I've consulted with people who actively practice magic and believe in it to make sure that 1) I'm not crossing boundaries and insulting anyone and 2) that there is a measure of realism to what the character who is Wiccan (or whatever it happens to be in the book) is doing.

Barb said...

I very much agree with Liana. I write historical fiction, so I need to get my events, locations and reports fully researched.

You however, are talking about some circumstances that, while they may be common (sadly), they are also very individual. I think you could read many accounts of people who have dealt with these situations and they there would be numerous perspectives and reactions.

So there is researching the facts, but there's all making it come alive. To me, the best way to do that is to determine how you would respond to the events. Then put that into your characters words.

Rebecca said...

A few google searches usually works for me! Honestly, that's my answer...simple as that. I think you just need to know enough for the part you are including in your story. If you can do more research that's great but as long as what the reader reads sounds and is authentic then you're good.

One of the reasons I love writing fantasy - I get to make things up!

Johanna said...

It will be nice when we are all famous authors with numerous best sellers under our belts and in our acknowledgements we have to thank all of our RESEARCHERS...alas, until then, we have to suffer through it.

I actually don't mind all the research myself. Weird I know. I generally know the topic or two that I have to research prior to even beginning my novel and that is largely how I approach it. I kind of deluge myself in books about the topic or two and it rounds out my story plots and characterizations before I even hit the page.

A trick I use: I usually start my research in the children's section of the library. If I am setting my novel in Paris, for example, I take out every children's book related to the topic (since you can take out some insane number like 40 children's books!) I can read them quickly and get basic notes which helps me get my feet wet and refine my search before delving into adult book/onine research...plus the pictures help.

B.J. Anderson said...

Lately I haven't been dealing with research very well. I'm working on a story set in the 13th century, and I feel like I'm having to research every teeny tiny thing to get it right. Then I end up not putting half of what I've learned in the actual manuscript. I don't want it to be like a book I'm reading right now that is jammed full of obvious research info-dump, and it's really boring. Sigh. Good luck with the research.

Danyelle said...

Research is great. How much is enough? As much as the story calls for, helpful, I know. :P

I always keep in mind that the research is for the details. This means that you're going to do more research (likely) than you will actually incorporate into the story. But it's necessary to make things believable.

And to make it seem less daunting, I find it helps to do the research in chunks and to be very specific. :D

Icy Roses said...

Haha, this is why I like fantasy best (although I will try a contemporary work soon enough), because research is virtually unnecessary in some cases. It's not that I don't like research. I'm a history major. I have to like research. It's just what I claim to be doing on the internet as "research" is often not research, it's "procrastination."

I don't need another excuse to surf the web when I should be writing.

Kate said...

I think you have to have researched enough for it to become a natural part of what you're writing - so that it doesn't look 'put in'. So, for example, in historical fiction it has to appear as if you've actually lived during that time. Of course you can't know everything, but it has to appear that way.

The key is, I think, not to go overboard. I once read an unpublished story in which the first 600 words (at least) were a rivet by rivet description of a man's armour and weapons. Obviously the writer had done huge amounts of research, but as a reader I didn't want all that detail. It just seemed to be the writer saying 'look how much I know'. It added nothing to the story. There's no point to it if it doesn't enhance the story.

Amy Tate said...

My case may be a little different, because my novel is historical fiction. But I have four years of research into Crossroads at Brandy Station. The funny thing is that I only used about a fourth of it. But I had to understand it in order to get into character. If I could do it over again, I wouldn't change a thing.

Dave King said...

That is a grippingly interesting post. Off the top of my head I go along with Beth: if it's fiction we re talking about, you need only enough to build a believable world. Maybe you can have too much. I have twice (at least) produced work )poems) which were totally out of the imagination, though based on stories which are part of our heritage and known to most (I would have thought,) but which have been taken to be factual. Basically, you can't win. A parallel and equally interesting question might be HOW do you do your research, how much do you trust what is on the web for it?

Robyn said...

Eric, I had to do a lot of research for my book that I'm finishing up wit now. Two young girls lost in the mountains. I researched what goes on when there is someone lost in the woods in a community, rattlesnakes, opossums, raccoons, bobcats, and the list goes on. It wasn't as time consuming as I thought, but it still took time away from the actual writing. I had to say, "Enough is enough and then write the book with the research I had. If I didn't, I would probably still be researching. :)

Jade said...

I would agree with the other people here who said you need to do as much as you can to ground the story in reality and still make the story fly. I think the real danger can sometimes be adding too much detail rather than too little. But you still need to do that extra research because you need to know what your characters know, even if they never say/observe it in the end.

But don't let fear of getting it wrong stop you from writing. Write what you can, try to find at least one source to back up your claims, and then include an author's note at the end saying "I did my best, thank you to my sources, and any remaining errors are my own."

Good luck!