Research Part One: Too Shallow

In Uncategorized on January 21, 2014 at 10:00 am

Well, I did say last time that the research aspect of writing deserves its own essay…and I ended up writing two.

Research is a necessary part of the writer’s toolbox, and most people are aware of this. Even if you’re writing “what you know”, like an autobiography, you will sometimes need to look up dates and names. Unless you have some kind of superhuman memory, in which case it’s not nice to brag, keep that to yourself. Writing fiction, where even “what you know” can be tweaked and changed, contains its own problems.

There are two aspects of research that can ruin a good story: “not enough” and “too much”. They’re very different issues, each with hidden perils as well as more obvious ones. Today is all about Not Enough; next time we’ll be discussing Too Much.

It’s reasonably obvious that you have to do research, even when writing fiction. Not necessarily sit-down-and-read-at-the-library research; maybe you just need to stop for a minute and Google what the weather’s like in Tokyo in the winter. But nobody really talks about the reasoning behind research; it’s the assumed good thing.

Why should you need to do research, after all, if you’re making the whole story up as you go along? Is it necessary to be slavishly faithful to the real world when you are writing fiction that merely uses it as a framework? Is it necessary to know facts when writing fantasy? It is naturally easier to get by without research when you’re making up the world as well as everything in it, but as humans we still want constants: we want physics to work the way it always has, we want people to react in ways that are comprehensible if not predictable.

Research does more than provide facts. Research creates the ground on which you build. Because we all have certain things we just grow up learning — like language, the layout of the areas in which we live, the ways our families cooked food — we don’t really think about those things as being “research” so much as “knowledge”, but the distinction is minimal. And extending knowledge is necessary even when it may not seem like it.

One of my favorite examples is the proliferation of fanfics in the Avengers fandom set in “Stark Tower”, a New York high-rise building, right after the film came out. Most of them were light on details, which is good when you’re light on research, but once in a while you’d have someone say that they could see the entire city from…the 29th floor penthouse. Which, if you’ve never lived in a major urban center, or been to the 29th floor of somewhere, doesn’t seem irrational. However, if you’ve ever worked in or visited a high rise building, you know that the penthouse is more likely on the 99th floor than the 29th — and you definitely can’t see an entire city from only twenty floors up.

Unless it’s a very small city, I suppose.

This kind of misinformation — assumptions based in neither knowledge or in research but just in “eyballing it” — can throw people out of a story. I admittedly have a limited tolerance for people who complain they’re thrown out of stories; sometimes it’s legit, sometimes it’s just nitpickery to make themselves feel bigger. The same holds true for scientific or historical nitpicking of films. Sometimes it’s educational! Most of the time it’s just masturbation.

A lack of knowledge does genuinely affect the prose, though. It leads to a shallowness, because so many things have to be either skimmed over or left out. If you have no depth of knowledge, it can often show through in what you choose not to say because you don’t know how to say it. It can also mean missed opportunities to add layers to a story because the information that would have supported those layers is lacking.

Most people know you need to do your research, but for beginning writers it can be a quagmire of where to start and more importantly where to end — which is what I’ll be discussing next time, in part two, where I defend wikiwandering and will probably link you to TV Tropes.


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