A bit about research

A quick note: I know it’s been quiet on the blog front, however the festive season is not easy for me. This includes the build up towards the holidays. It makes me very low and quite snarky so I tend to “shut down”. While I’m still not in the best mood, I am trying to bring some semblance of routine back to my life so on with the blogging.

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Research is a big part of being a writer. You might have a wicked talent for creating characters, threading plot-lines and scoring dialogue but if you do no research then you work will probably have some holes.

Some writers love research, others hate it. I flash between the too depending on my mood.

Now, my personal rule is that any writer worth their salt who WANTS to be published someday has a good collection of reference books in their home or knows intricately the layout of the reference section in their local library.

If you want to be a professional writer, a published writer then you can’t skimp on the research. So, unless you were born with a mass of knowledge on hundreds of subjects then you will need to read up on them.  Not to mention things change especially in some subjects where improvements and developments replace original knowledge: for example Medicine, police procedures, technology etc.

Readers
Do not think your readers are stupid. They are your second biggest critic (after yourself) and even loyal fans will be ready to point out flaws you have made.  Try and get passed any anger or frustration you feel if people point out your flaws.  Take it as a positive step that they are trying to move your work forward (sometimes). I say sometimes because you may come across people (thankfully they are few and far between) who just want to pick holes. Be careful with these people as they can sometimes be talking complete bullshit. However if you didn’t do the research you might end up thinking they are correct.

I read a novel once that described a character changing into a Peregrine Falcon.  The physical description of the bird was “passable” but the flight and attack descriptions of the bird were completely off.  When reading a review of the book on Amazon I found another avid ornithologist who had also seen the glaring errors and wrote a long negative comment on this. Suddenly a possible fan becomes a strong critic.

Whether you feel a single issue like that deserved such a negative review/comment is irrelevant.  When a reader feels strongly about an error, they voice it….often!  The trick is to minimise the errors to begin with!

Do Your Homework
Who would have thought writing involved so much homework – the truth is, any writer who wants to be published should know this.  Research is a LARGE part of your writing trade.  So do it right.

Personal Knowledge – even if you are well versed on a topic, it does little harm to read up and refresh yourself.  Facts can get muddled and as mentioned changes can happen.  Make sure you know your stuff.

New Knowledge – If you are learning something from scratch do NOT just visit Wikipedia.  While this is a good site, it is not the be-all and end-all and mistakes are often made.  Use several sources and check out some books – the Internet is riddled with people putting their own opinions and “facts” about things which can be horrendously wrong.  Get some proper reference books, find good ones and learn your stuff.

There is a reason that if you study a subject like science that you are expected to list your references and very few permit you to use websites that are not official. If you are working on a degree you are expected to check out journals and papers for references, not quote random websites.

Treat your novel the same way, look out for books by people who really know their stuff and while the internet may be handy, it can be so easy to end up reading something that just isn’t right. The problem is someone can get a fact wrong, then a thousand people read it, think it’s correct and quote it. Now you have a thousand sites all quoting the same thing. This makes it easy for people to come along and go “oh, it must be right, I’ve checked several sources” – yes, bad sources where they all regurgitated the same incorrect fact.

Diagrams – These can be invaluable.  Whether you are describing the anatomy of a horse or the inner workings of a tank, if you can find some well-labelled diagrams, this makes description easier as you just “describe what you see”.  I personally have a large folder with diagrams of all sorts, saddles, ships, castles, weaponry etc.  This is my big reference folder and even if I never write about saddles (for example) again, I keep it because you never know!

Just to make sure I am clear, most of the diagrams I have are from books or official text online. Also keep references of where you got your notes from, in case you need to re-check anything.

Big & Small points
One fall down with writers is they may do large chunks of research on (for example) the inner workings of palace life in France back in the 1800s – everything from hierarchies, inner politics, full dress code for all and even what type of rats or other pests may have been in high numbers back then…. then somewhere deep in a scene the writer states the sun is high in the sky, during winter months.  Error!

NB: During the summer, the Sun is high in the sky.  Therefore, the light from the Sun hit the earth more directly during summer, making the sunlight more intense.  In winter, the Sun is low in the sky and the rays spread thinly. (At least in the northern hemisphere).

Okay, am I being picky with this?  Maybe, but your readers may be too.  Someone will notice.  Someone always does and you owe it to yourself, your craft and your readers to try and be as accurate as possible.  So remember – don’t just research the big stuff, little stuff is important too!

PS: Picky or not, the above error about the sun, was actually mine. When I was still a teenager I wrote a scene and in my description put the sun being high. It was picked up by someone reading my scene. It is what flagged to me how even minor details are important and need to be right.

Don’t Trust Other Novelists
Obviously, I am not talking about writers of reference books – though as mentioned above, try and multi-source (from reputable places where people are experts in their field) you get more information by doing that and if anyone has made an error, it’s easier to spot.  I am talking about other novelists, existing writers.  By this I mean, don’t just assume that just because an author is published that what they have written is correct.

For example – if you read in a novel and a passage states.  “Jim felt the painful sting, looking down he stared in horror at the snake fixed to his ankle.  Seconds later, the reptile pulled back having injected the poison into its victim.”

At first glance many readers would have been fine with this.  However there is a factual error and it’s something I have often seen in novels regarding this subject.  Venomous (or venom) and poisonous (or poison) are often used incorrectly and interchangeably when applied to plants and animals.  Venomous refers to animals that inject venom into their prey such as snakes and spiders etc.  Poisonous refers to plants or animals that are dangerous when consumed or touched. For those people who know about animals and plants especially venomous and poisonous ones, this is a glaring error.

PS: The slow loris is one animal that does cross the line between both but that’s another matter.

The above was just an example of how people can get things wrong and perpetuate these errors when others copy them without doing any research of their own.  The message here is, unless you KNOW it’s a fact, check it!

Also, there have actually been some famous novelists in the past who have purposefully put in a falsity. They do this to see just how many other writers copy their “knowledge”.

Writing and Researching
Depending on the topic and your own interest in learning, researching can either be very enjoyable or a chore.

If you find it a chore I recommend you do any large research parts as soon as possible.  Break them into smaller chunks but get as much research done for the main part of the story soon.  This way your writing won’t be hindered so much or require a lot of re-write.

Next you can start or press on with your writing.  What I do, is at the bottom of a scene or chapter I put a “notes” section and bullet point all the smaller research topics I need to cover to make sure the chapter /scene is as accurate as possible.

This way I don’t have to slow down my writing and can then take a few chapters at a time and do blocks of research – amending the scenes and then moving on.

You can also print out your work, take a highlighter and highlight any sections or points that need to be researched to make sure they are correct.

Your Reference Guide
It is a good idea to start building up a reference guide. This works especially if you are borrowing books from friends or from a library and won’t have them all the time. Make notes on your research, (it is a good idea to include your source as mentioned) and start to build up an electronic and/or hard copy of research notes.

Your research about horses and their behaviour could suit for a story regarding medieval knights and one in modern day set on a ranch! Never cast research notes aside, but do remember to update them periodically.

Fantasy
I have often heard from people who write fantasy stories that “research isn’t needed because it’s fantasy” (same with sci-fi). Personally, I think that’s a mistake. Yes you have some wiggle room when it comes to fantasy and even sci-fi as you are not bound as tight by certain rules however it is a mistake to think “anything goes”.

If you make everything too “out there” you can find readers aren’t interested. It is often suggested that you keep basic concepts of natural law similar to our own. This also allows for ease when creating landscapes because different landscapes (eg desertification / rainforests) occur due to certain conditions which you can include.

However you can have fun with it for example by mixing science with fantasy for example by explaining how dragons breathe fire – due to a mixture of chemical gases produced from a secretion sac near the lungs. Using the diaphram to expel the gases (so they don’t come out just with breathing) when these gases reach the tongue (which is coated with another chemical) create a “fiery” reaction. 🙂

PS: the above was triggered from a vague memory that Terry Pratchett wrote about dragon combustion anatomy in one of his novels. Though I can’t remember his exact methods, so threw one together myself – though I guarantee he’s was better!

Now, by studying some chemistry to learn about reactions and products (my chemistry knowledge is pretty poor and unfortunately my chemistry PhD partner is not here so I can’t write this better….however if this were to be in my novel I would be pouring over chemistry books…boring as that would be!)…you could for example come up with ideas on how the dragon could create the fire (or any product) by the concept of chemical reaction. Thus you could end up sounding realistic and fantastical at the same time!

Ahhh science… fun and boring at the same time! :p

In the end, you may find your own ways to research work better.  The above are just some personal suggestions from me.  However one thing I must stress, DO research, it’s worth it.

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