Cross-posted from MySpace:
In a fiction book or story, is research really necessary?
Opinions vary, but here are some things to think about:
1. How integral are the facts to your story? If you’re writing a story set primarily in World War II England, you’ll probably need to know some geography, the timeline of the war, what daily life was like, etc. If, however, WWII England is only peripheral to the tale and is irrelevant to much of the action (as is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), your base of knowledge wouldn’t need to be quite as broad. Although C.S. Lewis knew plenty about the war and the conditions in that era, he sprinkled in only what was necessary to set up the story (most of which took place in Narnia, not England).
2. How likely are your readers to regard what you write as factual? In murder mysteries and police procedurals, readers have come to expect a certain level of knowledge on the author’s part, and blowing off your research or “winging it” could easily lose you readers. Similarly, in “hard” science fiction, readers assume a solid grounding in science, and you should know, for example, that sound does not carry in the vacuum of space. In space opera, however (like Star Wars), the future and high tech gadgets are often only a backdrop for the story, and such inaccuracies are more easily forgiven. (There are also “hard” science space operas, so please don’t write in to correct me on this.)
3. Could “getting it wrong” have any effect on your reader? Because most readers are unlikely to find themselves ever riding a dragon, your failure to describe the relevant technical details about aerodynamics, G-forces, and so on probably won’t have any impact on the reader’s life. If, however, you show a situation that could happen in everyday life—a drowning, for instance—and you describe your hero doing first aid incorrectly and saving the victim, it’s possible that your reader might take note of the scene and believe that he or she now knows how to resucitate someone who has drowned. (I believe this is especially true with YA fiction.)
4. Could “getting it right” be a problem? I think so, but then, I tend to err on the side of caution. In some cases giving a reader unnecessary knowledge can be irresponsible. It’s a fine line, and you might find yourself facing that decision. For example, in the novel Ignition by Kevin J Anderson and Doug Beason—it’s like Die Hard at the Kennedy Space Center—the authors did their research and consciously chose to alter their descriptions to prevent anyone from using the book as a blueprint for a terrorist attack.
5. How much is enough? Research itself should not trump plot or character development in importance. Also, you don’t need to spew everything you’ve learned on a given subject onto the pages of your book. Some authors (e.g., Tom Clancy) are known for throwing it all in and letting the reader wade through it. Too much can actually get in the way of the story. Others put in just enough to give you the picture and to let you know that they understand what they’re writing about. Finally, if research consumes all of your time and keeps you from your story, it may be time to stop revelling in research and get back to writing.
That’s about it for this time.
*This multipurpose Italian salutation is used in an advised, tongue-in-cheek manner and in no way implies a corresponding chicness, shallowness, or worldliness on the part of the author. (Additional pejoratives may apply. Void where prohibited by law. Ask your physician if Ciao is right for you.)