Researching Fiction, Or The World’s Biggest Con Game

Three Card Monte by oschene from FlickrI have been doing quite a bit of research while writing this current book. I’ve read books about everything from sewing to Ancient Rome. Most recently I finished off a brief history of Romania.

You would think that I would be getting more confident in my ability to portray these concepts in my fiction. However, an odd trend has started popping out at me where, when I get a little bit of a handle on a subject, I actually lose all my confidence in being able to write it. It’s almost like I’m better off going in with zero knowledge and winging it, rather than taking a peek at something and then trying to write it.

I get rattled that my knowledge isn’t complete enough. A little research only serves to show me how much more I need to learn. This is because I forget one very important fact: fiction is complete and utter bullshit.

No one who has ever written a work of fiction has had complete knowledge of their story. That is literally impossible. They may have first-hand knowledge of one or more of the subjects, but that just isn’t the same.

Tom Clancy has been heralded for his research, mainly for The Hunt For Red October, during which he spoke with naval experts the world over. The book used so many terms and had such intimate knowledge of submarine that it seemed real.

But it was complete and utter bullshit.

See, Tom Clancy may have been able to learn all the names of the doodads on a submarine, but he couldn’t possibly have known how the water in the shower smelled or the food in the mess tasted. Only actually being on board could bring that sort of knowledge.

So you’re saying, fine, what if a submariner had written The Hunt For Red October? Well, there was also a lot in there about helicopter piloting and Russian subs and Arctic water and I don’t even know. Plus, there were parts from the point of view of a number of different ranks and crew positions. And you can’t possibly know what every point of view is like. So even if a book was only about the inside of one submarine having zero contact with the outside world, it still would be impossible to know everything.

I realize this is a fairly absurd length to take this point to, but it’s currently what I’m wrestling with. And this mental exercise helps me to remember that writing something smartly often trumps tons of research. If I can see, really see the story through one of my character’s eyes, then that will fill in a lot of gaps. I may need to look up when something was invented now and again, and brush up on who was wearing what, and what buildings were made of, but really, confidence in my scene tends to override any goofs I may make due to lack of knowledge.

Now I’m not saying you do zero research and then try to pass a scene off in a place and time that you know nothing about.

But sometimes I hit a plateau of research and I start to freak out because I don’t know enough and I might be using the wrong word to refer to Romanian nobility in the 1600′s (they were known as voievods or boyars depending on the region).

But then I remember this one simple tip and it helps me to relax again and move on with my work.

Because in the end, I don’t have to actually know what I’m doing. I just have to know enough to convince you that I know what I’m doing.