The Research Rule


One of the most frustrating—and the most rewarding—things about writing is that there are no hard and fast rules. As W. Somerset Maugham so delightfully puts it: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

But if there is one rule for which there is no exception, it’s that research is absolutely necessary. Thorough research. In other words, become an expert on everything—cabbages to kings. There. That’s the secret to good writing.

…Just kidding, it’s not. But it is true that good writing does not happen without thorough research. And if the thought of research fills you with sheer terror, conjuring up images of all the darkest moments of late-night scrambling for articles and dangerous consumption of black coffee from your school days, I’m sorry. Either writing isn’t for you, or you’re just going to have to get over it, because you need to turn into a veritable information magnet if you aren’t one already. (Writers often are.)

What was that? “Well, why is research so important?”, you ask? I’m so glad you did. It’s an odd coincidence, but I happen to have compiled a list of, as I see it, three ways to answer that question.

First of all, as I’ve mentioned briefly before, research gives your work depth by filling out the world you’ve created—even, yes, the world of a fantasy or science fiction novel. (These worlds have rules and histories too, even if different ones. They are presumably still on some level intelligible universes since you are able to write about them.) Research makes your world real, three-dimensional, convincing. Is your novel set in the 1950s? You need to know what people talked like, what they wore, how your character fits into his or her community. Set today? You still have to do research. If characters are to be authentic, they can’t live in a vacuum.

Research also respects the reader. It respects his or her intelligence and ability to discern fact from fiction—the sort of fiction that shouldn’t belong in your novel, like a character making an important transatlantic telephone call in 1913, when the first call of that kind didn’t even occur until 1926. You would be surprised at the number of people who have either picked up obscure facts somehow or other or are out-and-out experts. (And there are experts on just about everything.)

One of the worst things that could happen to you as a published author is receiving an email or a letter from an irate reader pointing out that your Colombian entomologist must be a bumbling idiot and not the intelligent fellow you presented him as because he incorrectly described the migratory patterns of the Greta oto (or glasswinged butterfly). It is a serious offense, and its importance cannot be exaggerated. Possibly your primary objective as a writer is to create a world that your readers will inhabit, one in which they can completely immerse themselves. That fragile illusion of reality, part of what makes reading so wonderful, shatters when they notice you have slipped up. And they will notice. They will feel cheated—and rightly so. You will have failed them.

I don’t want to get too dramatic. After all, if it was an honest mistake that you meant to look up or wouldn’t have dreamed was wrong, then you can always, with humbly bowed head, correct it in the second edition, and the third, and the fourth… And there probably will be errors that you and your editors won’t catch, and that’s all right, as long they aren’t made because you decided research didn’t really matter. You should care because your readers care.

Perhaps most importantly, research respects your characters, those people you have grown to love in spite of their flaws. (Hopefully they do have flaws, but I’ll save that discussion for a future blog post.) Although the idea may initially sound silly, it is a foundational aspect of good writing. Respecting characters as their creator mirrors the way we respect and is indicative of our respect for persons in “real life.” A goal of any good novel, or a novel aspiring to be good, is to portray a facet of human nature honestly, something that resonates with our human experience, a commonality that renders a story about eleventh century Ethiopia compelling to a twenty-first century New Yorker. A character floating along in life, not tied to her own history or what is happening around her, is not being respected. And by not respecting your characters, you are in a way not respecting the dignity of humanity. The good, life-like character is a well-researched character.

A word of warning, however, to those who are now convinced or re-convinced into becoming research fiends: research has the potential to consume your work and, indeed, take you away from it. Or, just as bad, you might be tempted to wear your knowledge like a gold star and overload your novel with unnecessary facts. This is certainly a risk, especially as information gleaned from research is often fascinating. I’m sorry to say this, but you can’t put every detail you know about the migratory patterns of the glasswinged butterfly in your novel. Only include those things that are crucial to the narrative in some way.

How to avoid this never-ending research rabbit hole? To put it in Wonderlandian terms, always keep in sight the “muchness” that is the meat of your story and what keeps you with the characters and where you’ve put them. Keep going back to that, reminding yourself why this research is important for them.

As with most of the advice you’ll receive about writing, even the research rule doesn’t have clearly defined parameters. Just, you know, don’t get too obsessive about it. You don’t need to know what your character was eating ten years ago at a certain café in Paris given that it was 1937…unless that particular repast at that particular time was somehow instrumental in forming the person your character is today because of the newspaper he was perusing, and now even the smell of Turkish coffee makes his stomach turn. Then you better believe you need to know.

See what I mean? Be thorough. Don’t go crazy. Happy researching.

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