Oh we have it so easy today, don’t we? Instead of spending hours in the reference section of the library, we have wikipedia and google. We can literally type any question we want into a search engine and get the most direct answer out there. If we need a book we can get it without leaving our couch on our kindle. When it comes to researching projects we have the option to just do it as we go along, and it truly is liberating.
But is there something we lose when we drop research as a process, as a necessary step to prepare ourselves to write?
In my last post I mentioned I had an idea that hadn’t yet formed into a full concept. I have been spending my writing time pouring over articles online, following threads and links on wikipedia.
I’ve always been intimidated by writing about an actual historical period because I don’t have much tolerance for historical inaccuracies. As fiction writers we certainly have some wiggle room with the truth, but for a period piece, I believe remaining withing the constraints of fact we can provide more credence to the fantastic aspects of our story. Otherwise, just build your own world with your own rules. That’s always been my preference.
But here I am, with this strong idea for a fantasy based on real myths and legends and taking place on Earth during the Golden Age of Greece.
What did the Ancient Greeks eat for breakfast? What were their homes called? How and during what time in their empire did they interact with various other cultures? When was Athens founded in respect to the Trojan War and Alexander the Great?
I can find a wealth of information on the internet, sure, but when you start getting specific, you start running into a little trouble. If you find the information, frequently it’s not quite for the exact time you are looking for. Things change alot in fifty years and empires last hundreds. Who’s reading the internet article about the daily life of a Greek slave girl? Why would anyone write it?
I studied English and Journalism in a time when the internet was a new resource and considered unreliable by most professors. Frequently I was banned from using any internet sources for my papers, but even by the time I graduated I was limited to two or three websites as sources. I had to go to the library. I had to use Lexus Nexus and other periodical resources. I had to call experts at time (that sucked for an introvert, by the way, one of the reasons I never actually fully pursued journalism).
And I’m glad I learned that. I can go to the library and look up the dusty old text everyone’s forgotten about that actually covers this stuff, year by year, the stats and facts of each war, each city, each culture. With no links in the text to take you to more information, just footnotes and back page references to other dusty old texts.
Looking up documentaries, or even (gasp) contacting an expert with questions, all these skills are mandatory for a book that relies heavily on anything you don’t already know about.
Do you have to? Nope. There is plenty of sloppy work out there. And we do ask our readers to suspend their disbelief.
But have you ever watched about movie or read a book about your profession, your hometown, your passion and they got it wrong? I recall watching a movie one about a fiction writer and about fifteen minutes in it was obvious the screenwriter and director had no idea how the industry worked. It ruined the movie for me.
Don’t give your readers a reason to put down your book. Don’t give a publisher a reason to reject it. Immerse yourself in the world you are writing about, whether it is the daily life of a professional dog walker or the court of Henry VIII. Facts are flexible, but they are also the foundation of fiction. And you don’t want your foundation to crumble.
How do you research? What works best for you? Where do you find your best resources?