Today’s post comes to you by special request.* A friend send me the following text the other day:
Do the world a favour and write a blog post called ‘do your fucking research’.
The instigator of this text was the book my friend was reading. Confronted with a never-ending stream of historical inaccuracies, implausible devices, and questionable—and possibly dangerous—fashion choices, she was understandably annoyed.
And who among us hasn’t been there? I sure as hell have. I remember quite distinctly having to stop in the middle of a book because the author claimed two background characters were “Inuit from a reservation in northern Saskatchewan.”** I got past it and finished the book***, but it was a near thing.
And that is why doing your research is important: wrong things jar the readers out of the story, and there’s a decent chance they won’t come back. Also, you look silly. No one wants that.
So, to facilitate not making asses of ourselves, here’s the Bare Knuckle Guide to Research for Writing. Ask yourself these questions whenever situations you’re unsure of come up in your story:
1) Have you done the thing you’re writing about? At least once, and in real life. Flying in a video game does not count. If so, cool. Use your own experience. If not, you can always try to go do it. I like to pretend this is one of the reasons I went to a firing range for the first time last year. But if the thing you’re talking about is hard, expensive, uninteresting, or illegal, go on to number two.
2) Do you know anyone who has? Time to make all those friends and family members prove they’re useful for something. Mine their experience, get their impressions. Just be up front about what you need the information for, or you’re going to have some awkward explaining to do when Uncle Jimmy recognizes his own first attempt at picking up dudes in back-country Nebraska in your manuscript. Don’t be that guy.
3) Do you have access to the Internet? There’s a thing called Google I want to introduce you to. You don’t have to go far on this, but a cursory search will turn up facts like wearing a corset outside your clothes in Victorian times made you the world’s largest ho-bag and other gems. It’s amazing how many people get this wrong. You don’t need to know everything about your topic, but a quick look can flesh out scenes enough for you to be getting on with. YouTube how-to videos are amazingly helpful.
4) Does this even make fucking sense? Always, always ask this. Steampunk, I’m looking at you. Steam-powered cell phone? I don’t think you understand what steam does. I suggest you go put a boiling kettle to your ear and see what happens. Also, do you have any idea what size a boiler needs to be?
When it doubt, go with common sense. If only because it’s so fucking uncommon.
*Got any questions or topics you’d like to see me address? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or in the comments. I love taking requests.
**Three things wrong with that description. Three.