03 April 2012

Research or Lie?

"A writer that delves into topics he doesn’t know has three choices, research, be vague, or learn to lie convincingly. The art of writing fiction is not so much being right, it is convincing the reader he is right, or entertaining him at a level where he simply doesn’t care."

I read the above quote in a writing forum recently, and it made me stop and think - especially since it was on a thread about the alternate history genre and the importance of research in stories. I read this and stopped, because ultimately, I think it's right. I DO think research is important, especially for a really convincing alternate history... But I'm also a perfectionist. That has an impact on many areas of my life, but it's particularly obvious in writing, and is the reason I stay away from writing historicals or alternate historicals.

Why? Because I'll never know enough. This is what my mind is convinced of, anyway. No matter how much research I do, no matter how many books I read, I'll still never know enough to present another time period convincingly. Which is rubbish, I know, but the thought is strong enough that, as I said, I shy away from writing in the history genres.

I'm having this problem with Jesscapades, too. Jessc is set in England and I've had suggestions from some readers that the setting needs to be more specific, less vague and handwavey. Pick a real location already, they say.

Except if I do that, I'll need to research the location, investigate climates and weather patterns, learn the history, study the neighbourhoods, find some locals and quiz them on the atmosphere, the habits of the population, figure out which area my MC is most likely to live in and where she would go to work and why... And it's so. much. work.

I've tried the vague route; obviously that didn't work. I've tried the research-the-heck-out-of-it route too, spending hours with google maps, browsing everything from real estate websites to online fast food menus. In the end, all I got was frustrated, and even after those many hours, I'm no closer to knowing where Jess might live or any of it.

So I guess the next option is option 3: learn to lie convincingly. Because ultimately, the final sentence is right - readers read to be entertained, not for the veracity of the setting. So I can quit stressing over the fact that Coventry, UK doesn't have a warehouse exactly like the one I need for Jesscapades; really, it's my story, and I'm allowed to plonk a warehouse down where I need one if I need to. And perhaps the issue the betas had is not so much that I need to pick a real world location, but more that I need to make the sense of setting sharper, clearer and more detailed - make the world of the story come alive.

Do you have a preference for recognisable, real world settings over 'vague' real world settings? I'm curious, because a few of my stories take place in actual places in my head, but I'm not sure whether or not to make that obvious in the text, or whether to leave it ambiguous... What do you think??


Pippa Jay said...

Because I'm not particularly good with geography or history (and I'm too lazy to research them) I blew up the Earth in my character's universe to get around it. But I do research stuff, enough that I have a 'feel' for the era/place/technology. You can argue that even the experts don't know everything. Technology scares me the most, because there are some serious scientists who don't like it when writers get it wrong, but my arguement would be that in 100 years, 1000 years, who knows what we can do? Things that we have now were probably thought impossible a century ago.
I would say having a general feel and a verbal sketch of a place is enough. Only a local resident is likely to pick you up on it, although if you choose somewhere that has iconic landmarks (like the Angel of the North or the Houses of Parliment) you'll need to at least mention them.

Beth Overmyer said...

I think there's a balance. Know the basics but don't exhaust every detail. What are the basics? That's where you get to decide, imo :) If it's pertinent to the story, research it to a point where you are presenting correct information, without going into exhaustive detail.

Jane Austen wrote --shire to avoid the issues people might have. Like: "No one named so-and-so lives there!" "There's no this and that there!"

So, you could always make up a city, country whatever, leave the field blank like Austen, or mirror/parody a place.

As for doing no research... I like research. I know most people don't. For my WiP, I did minimal research for the 1920s. But I did make sure phrases/words/products were in use at that time. Of course, the setting was a little vague.

Sorry, rambling. In short: I think research is important. But it sounds like you might be perfectionistic about it. Like you said (I think): You can't know everything there is to know about a setting, etc.

I mean, I don't even know who the mayor of my village is (sad, no?) Does your character necessarily need to know theirs? Does the mayor even need to be named (as in, is she important to the story?) Just an example O:)

As for lying, you might get called out on factual errors. You might also get called lazy/sloppy (and I in no way think you are.) If you're okay with that and can tell such a fascinating story that people don't care, go for it :)

Okay, wow. I wrote a lot (and a lot of it was in circle...) Am ending here. Honest! :)

Amy said...

Pippa - Ah ha ha! That is the most elegant and awesome solution ever - just blow the earth up. LOVE. Yeah, tech freaks me out too. Future tech not so much, but I really wanted Jesscapades to have more of a spy-gadgets sort of feel to it at one point, and ended up giving up on that because the research at that time was impossible.

There's a lot of stuff more freely available on the net, though, these days, so maybe I could add some stuff back in... Hmm. Food for thought.

And you're right re landmarks and such - my problem is that for me it's a slippery slope; if I start mentioning landmarks, then I'll need to mention street names and suburbs; if I do THAT, I'll need to know which suburb MC actually lives and works in; if I do THAT, I might do it completely wrong and have my (hypothetical) affluent MC living in the ghetto, or some equivalent. OH THE TERROR. *hyperventilates*

But I guess this is what beta readers are for, really. Logically, I agree that a general fee and verbal sketch is fine. I just need the betas to make sure that comes across... :)

Amy said...

Beth - essentially what I think you're saying is that there's a balance, and that you should go into detail for things that are important to the story, and not worry about things that aren't. Which is really sound advice, I think! :) It's just hard to know what's important, because the perfectionist brain can ALWAYS justify something as important o.0 :P

Getting called out on errors of ANY sort is terrifying. But I can't spend my entire life researching and never writing, either. I like your suggestions about inventing cities as mirrors, and I can't believe I forgot about Austen leaving blanks. Such a CLASSIC avoidance technique! :D hehe.

Krista D. Ball said...

When it doubt, make that shit up. :p

Says she with a degree in history :D

Amy said...

Exactly :D Which basically translates to: know lots of general stuff about the topic, and then invent in accordance with your facts to the fill the blanks.

I think I'm going to stick with having a 'vague' real world location in Jesscapades. I'll work on making the setting more alive, but yeah. There's no reason it NEEDS to be a real world locale, and really, in my head, it isn't. It's just... there.

Thanks for the advice, everyone O:) And if anyone else has anything to chip in, please feel free!

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