Getting It Right

“Psh! You only write fiction. How hard can it be? You just make stuff up!”

You’re wrong, random bystander who has CLEARLY never written a novel! Wrong, I say!

Fiction writers thrive on believability. Our books can’t live without it. All stories, even the weird kiddy picture books, must have internal logic. They have to exist in a system that makes sense, even if there are a few things that are a bit off from the way our real world works.

Let’s look at an example. Harold and the Purple Crayon is a children’s story about a little boy with a crayon that he uses to create cars, buildings, etc. “That’s nonsense,” you say. And you’re right. Crayons don’t do that. But they can within a child’s imagination. The story is set within Harold’s imagination, and so the logic of the story is that of a three-or-whatever-year-old child. Looked at it through that lens, the story makes sense. Nothing happens within it that wouldn’t happen within a small child’s imagination, or within the parameters of the crayon’s set abilities. The story has internal logic.

This is even more important when you’re writing for older audiences (although I can’t convey how irritated I get with children’s books that don’t have this logic). This is where research comes in. Research lends stories a dose of reality, thereby increasing their believability.

Let’s say I’m writing a historical fantasy mash-up thing wherein a Confederate soldier at Gettysburg is granted immortality by a dryad he was busily bleeding to death against.

Some of my research is going to be historical research. I’m going to check up on how the battle went, who was involved, what led up to it. I might also do some hands on research as well. I could visit the battle site and get the lay of the land. I could take up muzzle-loading to get a better feel for the range and accuracy of period weapons. This research is going to have to be pretty solid because it’s based on things that actually happened. If I get this wrong, someone WILL call me out on it.

Another aspect of my research could be a tad messier. (Because, really, what’s messier than the human body?) I would want to know what kind of wounds a musket ball would leave. Or a cannon. Or grapeshot. I would want to know what parts of my body bleed in what ways. What would be fatal? What would allow me to drag myself to a tree and bemoan my fate for a little bit first? What else might I be dealing with at the time? Maybe I have tuberculosis at the time, too. Maybe a cold. I might also want to research medical practices of the time because my poor protagonist is probably going to be thinking about whether he’ll lose his leg or need surgery only to die of an infection. He might be wishing for some kind of pain killers- but what might they have back then? Just whiskey? Anything else they might give him? Morphine? I’d better go look it up. This aspect of research is mashing together what actually happened with a current understanding of the human body.

And perhaps you’re into experimenting on your own body. What would it feel like to be in a battle like this? Could I get into a reenactment? Could I run up and down hills for a few hours and get a better sense of what that would feel like? Maybe I’ll go paint-balling with my friends and learn first hand what it feels like to be sitting in the same cramped position for the last two hours, my numb fingers closed on a metal barrel, my breath misting the air around my face, only to be rushed from above and shot in the face. (Note: that feeling sucks.)

Of course, with the fantasy aspects, there will be quite a bit of leeway. It’s important to know the actual basis of the dryad, but if I think it should pop out of the tree as a hermaphroditic puppy instead of a nubile naked woman, who’s gonna stop me? (Sparkly vampires, anyone? I do what I want.)

The answer to that might be: my readers. If it even gets that far. It could also be publishers, editors, agents, assuming I go that route. If it doesn’t fly with the people determining whether or not my book is successful, then it’s over.

This is why research is so important. At any point, if you don’t have your stuff straight, a reader can call BS, put the book down, and never buy a thing with your name on it again, and probably write a scathing review as well. I can’t list off all the movies my dad ruined for me as a kid because of his nonstop monologue about what rifle wasn’t developed until what decade, or what style hat was worn during the Revolutionary War. Honestly, people know it if you’re just spouting. This is why we’re told over and over to write what we know. Because when we’re making garbage up, that’s when things get messy.

So it is very important that the garbage we make up is consistent and, where possible, factual. It must make sense, have internal logic. And this lends itself to a whole ‘nother aspect of research called world building. World building isn’t research in that I can look it up on Google, but rather it’s setting up the framework of the world my characters exist in. It determining how gravity works and what magic is, what color the sun is and how your main character’s dad treated her as a child. And this is just as vital as the research you do on bullet holes and dryads. But it is, alas, also another post entirely. So we’ll save all that for later.

In closing, let’s all share a few of our favorite research venues!

I like to use Google searches when I have a pretty direct question. (How long would it take someone to bleed out after having their throat slit? What is the best way to hurt someone without leaving a mark? How long has ‘kid’ been slang for a child? And yes, I have asked all three of those things.)

Wikipedia is nice when I’m looking for something a little more broad. Then I just look up the article and absorb, then do my writing from that. (Night blooming flowers. Putrefaction. Armor.)

I’m also fond of YouTube, which has tons of fantastic knowledge nuggets and how-to sorts of things. This is where I go when I want to see how a 15th Century duel might go down, or take a tour of Carcassonne, or learn a little something on one of my favorite channels: SciShow! Gather, students! Let’s all learn about starvation!

So, how about you? Where are your favorite places for research? Other internet gems? Local hotspots? A particularly fantastic research librarian? Let us know in the comments below!

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2 thoughts on “Getting It Right

  1. Ok then, how do you explain the success of books that are just plotless chaotic ramblings? I’m thinking of “a wrinkle in time”: or “the never-ending story”.

    • Plot has nothing to do with research or world building. A plot is all the stuff that happens to the protagonist on the journey. The story is how the protagonist changes throughout the journey (which, I would argue, is more important than the plot itself). And the setting is the world it all takes place in: physical place, temporal era, physics, society, etc. Putting the time into sussing out the setting, through research and world building, is what makes a compelling world, regardless of whether or not there is a compelling story arc to go with it.

      That aside, both your examples DO have some kind of plot. (A Wrinkle in Time tells of rescuing their father and then later Charles Wallace; and The Neverending Story centers on Bastian saving Fantasia and then himself from the Nothing/forgetfulness; but both are really about the power of love and/or redemption to overcome all else.) And in fact, the ‘chaotic ramblings’ you mentioned could actually be argued to be excessive world building, which fantasy authors are often guilty of, myself included. But both those stories have internal logic and consistency in what the characters and the world can and cannot do. Although both stories feature powerful magic, the magic is not limitless and it is not inconsistent. The characters’ paths take them through different aspects of the world and force them to call on different abilities, but nothing happens that is outside of the setting at least hinted at in the first few chapters of each book. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read either of these books for over a decade, so I could be dead wrong on all of this. So call me out on it if I am, because I didn’t do my RESEARCH.)

      But you’re right. Sometimes books with no apparent structure (or at least a really terrible structure) do phenomenally well. And I imagine that it is the lure of a really well thought out world that would make such stories successful, because they don’t often have much else going for them. However, I think we can all agree that such successes are the exception rather than the rule. My writing in that style is a valid form, but it greatly decreases my already miniscule odds of getting published and doing well. That, and I promised my husband I would try not to write like that anymore. 🙂

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