The thing about researching for a novel is this: it’s critical. Unless, of course, your novel takes place in
- A completely fantasy world you made up. (Now your concern isn’t research but in-depth, consistent, and believable world-building).
- Your story is basically your own life (i.e. your character has the same job as you, lives at the same time as you, and and lives in the same place as you).
- Your readers won’t care if you’re accurate.
If none of the above choices apply to you, then you’d better just accept that research looms on the road ahead. But, hey! Research isn’t synonymous with “no fun”. In fact, a lot of writers find the research stage the most fun. Actually, um, er…a lot of writers — ahem, myself — use research as a means of putting off the dreaded first draft.
So what do you need to know to make your book accurate? Well, that depends on the story (of course). Is it a historical? If so, the work is definitely piled on. Is it a contemporary story? Well, you might have less work — or not if it’s a career or setting you know nothing about. Is it a science fiction? Oi, that could require a lot of research to get the science part right.
Okay, I hear you. You’re asking me, “It’s fiction. Why does accuracy matter?”
Well, here’s the thing. Your readers will suspend disbelief, but only so far.
Yeah, you can probably get away with fudging a few details –– TV shows get away with it all the time (e.g. the female cop who prances around in 3-inch heels) — but you’ll tick off some of your readers every time. What happens when you tick off readers? That’s right…you lose them for good.
Ultimately, when the suspension of disbelief goes against our common sense or when that suspension doesn’t fit into what we know about the universe, then it’s a problem. Especially in fiction with a contemporary or historical setting.
Okay, you got me. Unless that historical setting is in a fantasy, alternate history novel. For example, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest makes some major alterations to history’s timeline, but Priest admits to these changes and asks her readers to accept them for the sake of the story.
But alternate histories and science fiction aside, how does an author ensure her story is accurate? How does she verify the facts?
And where does one begin for research? That depends on your genre, but it’s safe to assume that someone out there knows the truth behind 19th century etiquette, undercover police work, genetics lab experiments, etc. You’ve just got to look in the right place or ask the right person.
Next week, I’ll talk about researching for historical fiction — where to start your information hunt and what sort of information to search for. After that, we’ll look at contemporary questions. And finally, we’ll focus on those pesky scientific research areas — don’t wanna mess up the simplest laws of thermodynamics (trust me).