I don't like to write too much about writing. It bores non-writers, and most writers have already heard it all. I'm not Stephen King or George R. R. Martin. No one cares about my process. But every now and then I feel the need to defend writers of all kinds. Yeah, I have a hero complex, I guess. I also feel the need to correct false information, no matter how well intended. And I love my fellow wordsmiths. So imagine what my reaction is every time a skeptical friend suggests that reading is not research.
Ok, to be fair, I am fully aware that they are referring specifically to people who think they can argue science with scientists based on a few hours of Google U. It's just that when you say people who do their research online, or in a library, are doing inferior research to those wearing white lab coats, you are doing a disservice to both groups. So, for my skeptical friends, and my many unskeptical friends and family, indulge me while I talk about research and its importance to writing. I'm mostly talking about fiction writing here, but other types of writing, from playwriting to commercial advertising copy writing, depend on quality research too.
Research Versus Anecdotes
Scientists have to do real research, which usually only starts with reading and taking notes. But for writers, that order is usually reversed. Most of us have already lived what we are writing about. In the scientific world, you'd call that an anecdote. We writers prefer to call it experience. We've traveled, tasted, smelled, experienced, and sampled enough to get a good feel for the subject. Notice I said feel, and not knowledge? That's what it's really good for, the atmosphere, the human element. Most writers are pretty good observers of human nature. And we tend to look around wherever we are, and imagine a story set in that environment. Sometimes we go further and try to gain some real expertise in the real world. We take a job, eat the food, learn a new skill. This is our version of field research. I wrote a book about kids in a jungle, and whenever I needed to place them firmly in their setting, get the reader to fully immerse in their world, I harkened back to a childhood experience in the Panamanian rain forest near our home at Fort Clayton. There wasn't just some animal in the brush, but a kudamundi. When I wanted to set my science fiction story on a planet with a more arid climate, I drew on years walking to work through sandstorms in New Mexico, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Arizona. I remembered the feel of grit between my teeth, in my eyes, and embedded in the part of my hair. Books about flying written by pilots, war dramas written by Soldiers, and stories about poverty written by people who have been homeless tend to feel more authentic.
At some point our personal experiences fall short. We aren't writing our life stories (most of the time) and even if we were, our memories aren't perfect for the kinds of little details that help sell the story to the reader. For that, we need data. So now we're doing research. That's real research, skeptical friends.
Though we are not specifically talking about new scientific data here, we do need precise technical data. For the most part only nonfiction writers and science fiction authors need to worry about gathering or extrapolating new scientific data. Robert Heinlein wrote about using long sheets of butcher paper to work out ballistic trajectories for his famous space stories in the years before convenient pocket calculators, never mind computers. Luckily, for most of us, working out the math isn't usually necessary. The science has been done for us, and we can use our Google Fu to discover what the atmospheric pressure on Mars is, what trajectory our fired bullet will travel on way from the sniper's gun, or what materials would be necessary to grow potatoes in our own waste.
Here's where some authors get lazy. They assume the reader won't know, or it won't make any difference. Maybe they're right, for most readers. However, the people with the most interest in the subject you're writing on will also know the most about it. Makes sense, right? The most enthusiastic audience is the one most likely to be your worst critic.
Back when I was a kid, my dad, a First Sergeant in the Army, used to shout at the television whenever a spy screwed a silencer onto the wrong weapon. He went apoplectic over errors in movies and television shows everyone else credited as being highly realistic. "That weapon doesn't fire that ammo." "That's the wrong number of bullets." "That's not a Magnum .357!" His complaints were endless and a little daunting. I didn't know the difference in the models of handguns I saw. His complaints were equally insistent when it came to uniforms, unit designations, battle locations, chain of command blunders, aircraft misidentification, and on, and on.
I joined the family chorus of, "Oh dad, just let it go. You're ruining the show."
Fast forward ten or twenty years, and my son begs me to "turn off your big brain and just enjoy it." He's not complimenting my intelligence. Little inconsistencies drive me nuts. Why did Sandra Bullock take her helmet off, three times, while she was floating in aluminum cans in the vacuum of space while a deadly meteorite storm battered her refuge? I am not a scientist or astronaut. The things that bugged Neil Degrasse Tyson about that movie, annoyed me not at all. But dagnabit Sandra, put your focking helmet back on, you undisciplined twit! Look, folks, anyone with any training as a firefighter, EOD, Soldier, or astronaut would never, not in a million years, take their flipping helmets off, repeatedly, under those circumstances. Not only because of their strict training, but because it is the thing keeping them alive. Now this tiny detail bothers almost no one else I've talked to. They think I'm nuts, but I've been a student of human behavior for a long time. I mean, heck, it wasn't just my college major, it was my first job description in the Army, and my second. This behavior was so screamingly out of place and wrong, that I just can't enjoy watching that film.
Another terrible example, the device Michael Douglas fires in Falling Down is most definitely not a heat seeking missile. It is a LAW, a light anti-tank weapon. It's a dumb weapon. And every Soldier in the 1980s had to qualify with one, so we all knew they were bullshitting their weapons in those scenes. It wasn't just that they called it the wrong thing. That would be forgivable. It was that it worked all wrong in the scene where he deployed it. It just simply wouldn't have done what they showed it doing, and everyone with Basic Training under their belt knows it. I absolutely love this movie. It's a shining example of good research and great writing. The tiny things that stick out as unrealistic stick out because it is otherwise so good.
What about the ones that are so screamingly, obviously wrong, that they destroy the book for the reader? When you put the mountain your hero is climbing in the wrong country, or tell people that someone visited the Statue of Liberty years before it was installed, you've screwed up pretty badly. If you write a book about dinosaurs being brought back to life, it helps to know there have been many insects found preserved in amber (and now even bird wings!) that are at least that old, that dinosaur DNA could potentially be combined with frog DNA to fill in the missing bits, and that velociraptors had large sickle claws on their back feet. If you make the unfortunate mistake of making your raptors too large, and not feathered, in a few years, people will call you on it, but they'll forgive the artistic license. If you claim wooly mammoths and dinosaurs coexisted, they will class your movie with such scientifically accurate accounts as One Million Years BC, that's the Raquel Welch/Ringo Starr masterpiece, even if your mammoths are adorably voiced by a famous television personality.
And it isn't just science fiction and military stories that need worry about such details. For some reason, people seem to think fantasy authors never have to do research. Just make something up and go with it, presumably. Uh, no. Let's forget about J.R.R. Tolkien's linguistic degree and years of research for the Elvish used in Lord of the Rings for a second. Let's talk about the more mundane things. Is your fable of witches set in early Colonial America? Don't have your witch strike a match from a book of matches. Safety matches weren't invented yet. Matches of this time period were longish wooden sticks, burned fast, hot, and bright, and could be dangerous to use. Also, they could be expensive and hard to come buy. They'd be carefully hoarded. Candles would be lit from other candles, or from the embers from the hearth. And speaking of hearth, did you know that's where a lot of the cooking took place? And chicken may be the most common and cheapest bird in the US today, but back then, pheasant, grouse, duck, or turkey were all more likely on the dinner table. Wanna know a great scene from a science fiction movie that is too often ignored? Remember Back to the Future III? Remember the terrible brackish water and buckshot in the game? That's what research does. It makes even terrible movies just a little bit better. You simply can't have people able to produce electricity as if by magic, if you haven't explained it is indeed magic in action. So you better be prepared to explain why Gilligan can bicycle a charge for the radio. And no, just saying, "The Professor built it." won't cut it.
Here's where I get to remind my skeptical buddies how they dismissed book research.
Remember this diagram from a previous blog post? Yep, that's the scientific method, or rather, it's how the scientific method arrives at theories and laws via hypothesis testing. And you'll have noticed, it's a cycle. It doesn't stop once it's done a bit of testing and call it a day. It keeps asking more questions, narrowing the gap in our knowledge with more and more testing, retesting to make sure we got the answer right, and testing in different ways to make sure we were really testing what we meant to test.
Now, ready for the big reveal? Ta-da!
Step by step:
- Think of a story idea. Notice we've replaced "make observations" with this one. It's not because you don't need to make observations in order to write. You do. As I've pointed out, writers, like visual artists, are constantly noticing details in their environment that others might not to use in their stories. But the start of this particular process is the point at which an idea pops into the writer's head, whether because they observed something themselves, or because an editor gave them an assignment, or even if it's because they smoked too much opium last night. Many novice writers and non-writers think of this as the only step before actually writing their novel or screenplay. That's why we need this chart. My idea was a story about an invasion that would culminate in shots fired from Cinderella's Castle.
- Think of interesting questions. You can ask an interesting question or three to generate your idea in the first place. But once you have that idea, you are going to have to ask a whole lot of very specific and interesting questions, not just, "Will this be a space opera or a western?" Some of these questions will be useful for generating creative ideas and developing character motivation and such. That's great, but that's not what we're talking about here. We're talking about research generating questions that will make your writing better, more realistic, more relatable, or just not laughably bad. So I'll need to start by asking myself, which castle? A real one in Versace or Germany? A real castle that is not actually Cinderella's? Or the Disney version of Cinderella Castle? My choice will shape the entire story, and dictate what other questions I have to ask.
- Formulate a setting and plot. The first inkling of the plot will come with the first spark of an idea. But now you'll have to start getting a bit more fleshed out. The setting and plot will drive everything from character development to transportation to what kind of food is eaten. Your characters aren't swimming in a void of your imagination anymore. I picked the Disney World Cinderella Castle. So my setting is Florida. That means hot, rainy weather, alligators, mosquitoes, oranges, and proximity to beaches. My plot is tentatively a tsunami that sweeps along the southern shores, causing widespread panic, evacuations, and flooding, and distracting the authorities from my invasion, from the opposite side of the peninsula. My hero, a news reporter, uncovers the plot and must foil it before they can seize the Magic Kingdom, with a showdown between the hero and the chief bad guy right there at the Railroad Station.
- Create plausible scenarios. This answers the tantamount question, how? How does a tsunami come ashore in Florida? How does an invasion force slip ashore unnoticed? How does a news reporter find out? You want to make the scenarios by which your plot will work as believable as possible. If I say Universal Studios has put the invaders up to it, not many people are going to buy it. In my story, the Coast Guard don't notice the ship full of invaders because they (invaders) are disguised as a commercial shipping vessel, and the Coast Guard is busy moving ships and people out of harm's way of the tsunami as well as getting their own vessels clear.
- Gather data to test scenarios. It's easy to pump out convenient little scenes that propel your story. But would they really work? Now's when that research happens. You aren't reading to "get a feel" or be inspired anymore. Now you have to look up all those pesky details that might make your story fall apart. If tides are caused by moons, then you can't have your moonless planet's oceans regularly bringing necessary supplies to your stranded astronauts. So start researching. I start by looking up tsunamis on the NOAA website. I also look up flood maps for the region. The bus company publishes their own evacuation maps and schedules, so those become part of my research too. I need to know what armies are close enough to Florida to boat over under cover of an impending wave. And I'll need to know all about Walt Disney World's actual construction, not just the on stage stuff.
- Refine, Alter, Expand, or Reject the scenario. Wait, what? Yes, you heard that right. Writers have to be ready to kill their babies. No matter how in love with an idea, or how pivotal a plot point, if your research shows it won't work or isn't correct in any way, you have to be ready to change it, or cut it out altogether. So I discover that tsunamis are very rare in the great pond between Europe and the Americas. Florida has never had one and they don't even have a tsunami warning system. Ugh. There goes the best part of my scenario. Maybe I should change it to a hurricane of epic proportions? --And then you go back to creating plausible scenarios, and testing them, and revising, and revising, and revising. This part just goes on and on until you have scenarios that test out no matter how much research you do, no matter how nitpicky you get about the details. Only when you can't find a single nit to pick can you move on to...
- Write your story. Congratulations, now you get to do the hardest part, right? You have the plot all proofed out, all the scenarios make sense, the details fit, and your setting serves the story. You put your characters in and start writing. I write across the top of the title page, Three Shots Fired From Cinderella Castle.
- Repeat. And then you start thinking of interesting questions again. What, again? Yes, again. Because now you're actually writing. And as you fit that piece of dialogue into your character's mouth, you realize he's from Boston. And that means he doesn't have family in Miami, but up north. And if he's worried about them, then the storm raged further north than your model predicted. How did that happen? Plausible scenario time again. And that means more research to see if that scenario will work. If not, you may have to change dialogue, and have him worry about his new family in Miami instead. And guess what, even after it's published, you're still at it, thinking of ideas. There's got to be a Part 2, right? or maybe a trilogy? And asking questions like, "Who is the guy who got shot by Goofy and why didn't anyone seem to care when he died?"
So how do you know you've gotten the flat facts?
The same way journalists and scholars and scientists do. You vet your sources and double check your data. If you are writing about a subject you're not an expert in, you may find it difficult to tell which sources are accurate, and which are faking it. The best sources are going to be dependent upon the type of information you are seeking.
Government agencies are excellent sources of raw data in their respective areas of expertise. Do you want to know how many people died of Tuberculosis in 1960? The CDC is the best source for that information. If you want to know how many automobile accidents occurred in a given year, the Department of Transportation may be your best source. But what if you are actually critiquing a political situation, or need data that you suspect the government in question is not being entirely honest about? There are a couple good ways to deal with this, and also some really bad ways. Some people make the mistake of dismissing all government sources as biased. But even if they are, they have access to raw data that you just won't be able to find anywhere else. And bias can be dealt with. The best way to figure out the real data, if you suspect bias, is to find two or three additional sources, preferably educational or academic sources. Then compare their figures to the government agency's. You might also try finding competing agency statistics, such as comparing the USDA to the FDA and EPA or the Department of the Navy to the Department of the Army. You can do something similar by comparing data from different countries, especially if they don't get along real well, or have different positions on the matter in question. Comparing US statistics on immigration from Mexico with Mexican statistics on emigration to the US provides a clearer picture of immigration, for example.
Scientific reports, journal articles, meta analysis, or even case studies and opinion papers are extremely helpful. However, if you aren't trained in how to read them, and especially in highly technical fields outside your own expertise, they can be daunting, and easily misunderstood. It can be useful to look for critiques of such studies, as well as the study themselves. For one thing, critiques of studies tend to be written in slightly less technical language and get right to the point. And of course, they tell you the weaknesses of the studies or articles in question. Never mistake a press release, or popular media report of a scientific study for the study itself. The popular media gets a lot wrong. Be careful of "pay to publish" type journals that have proliferated in recent years. Articles published in these journals need to be taken with a very large grain of salt. They are similar to self-published books in that there can be great ones, but there's also a lot of terrible ones. There are lots of good articles out there that provide guidance to help you better utilize these resources.
Nonprofit groups and non-government organizations are sometimes useful for gathering a lot of information about tough subjects. They are less likely to use jargon or highly technical terms. And their information is usually free. Watch out though, as they are just as likely to have a strong bias as any government agency you care to name. Save the Whales is a great source of information about whale anatomy. But if you want to find out how big the problem of whaling is, they may overstate the case. PETA can give you a lot of information on the fur industry, but a lot of it may be distorted. Balancing these sources with sources that represent opposing biases can often overcome these limitations. Talk to PETA about fur trapping and trading, then talk to a fur trapping trade organization, for instance. You might be surprised to discover how much they agree on. Where disagreement occurs, you will need to do further research. My favorite non-profit sources are museums and historical societies.
Books. We love them. Reading them can take forever, but they can give you a much deeper understanding of the concepts in question. Books can give the scientist an opportunity to really explore and explain their theories. We have to be careful not to spend too much time reading other people's books, or we'll never get to writing our own. But when trying to really understand a new concept, they can be invaluable. I recently read a book on survival gardening. In preparation for this latest book, I read two on Walt Disney World and Epcot. For a previous book I read books on genetics and evolution, as well as books on political revolutions. Books have to be vetted like any other source. Just because a person has written a book, that doesn't mean they are actually an expert on the subject they are writing on. And with a longer format, you only have more opportunity for mistakes to creep in. And for most books, they are edited by someone looking to improve its marketability more than its scientific rigor. Books are not peer reviewed, at least, not until after they are published.
Reading doesn't make you a scientist, but it can make you a researcher.
If all of this sounds an awful lot like the advice you get before writing a paper for your college class, or like the stuff those skeptics throw at you during a debate about science, that's because it is. Writers need good quality data, and we vet our sources the same way scientists generally do. We follow a similar cyclical process for research as scientists do. Because it matters to our readers, it has to matter to us. Reading, online or in a library, is a legitimate form of research. No one should make the mistake of thinking the kind of research we writers do to prepare for writing our stories makes us experts, no matter how much technical data we've gathered and analyzed. But neither should scientists or skeptics dismiss such research as something unrelated to what they do. Scientists start with reading, and proceed to more active research in a field or lab. Writers tend to start with experience and then knuckle down to the reading. So, can we put this one to bed? Reading is research.