I remember the first time that I was interviewed for a national publication. I experienced a mixture of nervousness and excitement. Being interviewed as an “expert” in your field is a great opportunity, but I worried I might sound dumb or unprofessional. In preparation, I did extensive homework. I made certain I had all my talking points prepared, facts on hand, and a quick introduction and conclusion, in case either were required.
The interview itself lasted about thirty minutes. The article’s author asked me questions, probed topics with follow-up questions, all the while providing encouragement with well-placed “uh-huh” and “interesting.” At the conclusion, she assured me that it had been an excellent interview and she had learned much from me on the topic. All my preparation seemed to have paid off.
A few months later the article was published. I was at first astonished and then disappointed.
Thirty minutes of conversation appeared as three quotes in the article.
As you can imagine, my initial reaction was: WTF did I spend all that time for if they just needed three damn sentences from me?
My second reaction: What an incredible waste of my time! I so could have just winged it.
Later, with my ego sequestered to a quiet place, I reread the article. And I discovered that my three lines provided valuable, if not critical, points to the piece. The author had done a great job summarizing that thirty-minute discussion into its most salient points and driving those points home with my quotes.
The specific information I provided worked to support the whole of the article. Yes, my input was secondary to article’s main contention but no less critical in supporting the contention. I was one piece of the total research the author had conducted. She had done her job well.
The lesson I learned I later applied to my fiction writing.
Fiction is, in its simplest form, a series of lies. We start with one lie and build other lies upon it. Imaginary people doing things that never happened, and often in places that never existed.
But great fiction isn’t untruth…it’s a bending of the truth.
Fiction operates between our world and the world of pure imagination. For it to make sense to the reader, they need a bridge. A bridge comprised of the information and rules to help them quickly make sense of our imaginary world or events. The rules operate on a scale. If your story is entirely rooted in “this” world, then you have to follow the rules of this world. If your story occurs in the future or fantasy, then you have to work hard to explain those rules to the reader.
All of which requires research. Research on the external world and research on your internal world.
And just like my interview, often you’ll spend hours on research to create one single line of fiction.
A lack of research may ruin your book.
I say “may” because it is true that many authors don’t bother. It is also true that some writers who don’t bother manage to reach the best-seller’s list. But in both cases, they either limit the reader’s experience or are called out on their errors.
In any case, here are the three ways in which a lack of research may ruin your book:
1. The Loss of Plausibility
As a dark fiction author and a vampire-lore fan, one of my favorite examples of this “lack of research” problem is Stephanie Myers’ Twilight Series.
Ms. Myers was adamant that “her” vampires were not to have fangs. Apparently they just “bite” the neck and “drink” the blood. Okay, fair enough, but if they aren’t “mainstreaming” the blood then how are they absorbing it? She never explains.
I did about five minutes of research and here is what I discovered.
The human body contains about one hundred and seventy ounces of blood. A loss of eighty ounces usually results in death. The stomach can hold about thirty-two ounces of liquid at one time. The liquid is absorbed in the small intestines. It takes ten ounces of liquid about five minutes to reach the blood stream. It takes about eleven minutes for half of it to reach the blood stream, and one to two hours for the entirety of that ten ounces to be absorbed.
Without some further explanation, the process of drinking blood for sustenance is a little complicated and compromised.
We would expect that the vampire couldn’t drink more than say fifty ounces without an amusing looking bloated belly. And they could not ingest enough to kill a person by “draining” them. And, again without some explanation, any blood ingested would take a minimum of five minutes to have any benefit and a couple of hours to have the full benefit. And on a final note: When you get a blood transfusion do they put the blood in your glass or your arm?
The lack of research means we have to rely on - “well it’s magical and complicated, and you wouldn’t understand.”
My purpose isn’t to pick on Ms. Myers’s story. The point is that with five minutes of research and one or two lines of explanation, the entire issue could have been avoided. Her implausible creatures could be, at least scientifically, plausible.
2. Lack of Credibility
The author must be the subject matter expert on their work. I don’t know a thing about the Land of Shandonolia where you’ve placed your characters. I expect that you do and that whatever this “world” is that it’s going to work in a way that makes sense.
I don’t know anything about being an international spy either. I expect that the author of a spy novel knows everything there is to know on the subject. Whatever the place, the character, or the character’s skill set, the authors should be the expert. They don’t have to be a doctor, but if they are discussing doctorly stuff, they better have done their homework. If the reader senses the author is “winging it,” he or she will question why the author is telling a story about something they don’t understand.
For example, I came across a story where credibility was lost in a single line. The main character, an international spy “slapped a new clip into her .38.”
That line may not seem odd to you. If it seems reasonable, then you should probably leave gunplay out of your stories until you’ve done the homework. A “.38” is a type of revolver. A revolver doesn’t use a “clip.” Now maybe it was a spelling error, and the author meant to type .380 (which does use a clip), or maybe the author just doesn’t know anything about guns, which is odd considering the primary role of weapons in the genre.
Readers are experts in their genre. They know the rules, the weapons, the places, and the science. And some will slaughter you if you get the basics wrong.
3. Breaking the 4th Wall
In movies and television, there is a term called the 4th wall. The wall is the camera and only in very few, well-planned, and purposeful moments do movies ever break this wall and address the audience (House of Cards mastered the break).
The reason is that “breaking” the wall brings the audience out of the story. It ruins both the story and the flow. The viewers and readers are observers, not participants.
The poorly researched material can have this unintended effect. In the same way that a string of typos can knock the reader out of your story, things that make no sense will have the same result. In a book, it’s that moment when you remember this is all make believe. The images disappear, and you again see just words on the page.
Confusing the function of a revolver with a semi-automatic or creating an implausible blood sucking scenario can break the fourth wall. But most often, the thing that shatters it is a failure to understand the rules of one’s story.
The reason many authors use “style” sheets is to keep track of all the stuff she made up in the book. The document is just a private research guide. This critical guide ensures you won’t jar your reader from the story. Sometimes, the mistake is small like in Stephen King’s Under the Dome, when the main character’s army title changes. In other stories, things just don’t add up. For example, in Star Wars we are left wondering why Luke Skywalker aged eighteen years and Obi-Wan aged at least forty. And did the writers know that Luke and Leia were siblings when they wrote that make-out scene?
Research is a matter of knowing what you are writing about…intimately. And it is being the master of what you previously wrote. In a way, writing is simply The Matrix. It is a world built on rules. You are free to make them, to twist them a bit, and to exaggerate the possibilities without regard to the probabilities as long as you can provide plausibility. (Say that three times fast.)
What you can’t do in your world of fiction is break the rules of this world or your own…unless you provide a researched explanation.