I was going to dash off a blog post about doing research for writing because I’ve been doing a fair bit of that lately, but I discovered as I started the post, I have more opinions (some of them conflicting) than I expected. I had to sit down and think about it for a day or two. You see, I spent forty years or so looking at the world through the eyes of a scientist, so data, facts, research are kind of important to me. But what kinds of research should I be doing for my fiction? How much is enough? And how much is too much?
In an interview on NPR, Richard Powers admits to knowing very little about trees most of his life, but his book, Overstory, indicates he did vast research before writing his novel. Andy Weir, in his wonderful book, The Martian, included so much detail and accuracy that, when the film based on the movie was given a Hugo, honest-to-goodness astronauts were on hand to present the award.
When I’m reading a story, nothing pulls me up short faster than stumbling over a something I know isn’t true. On the other hand, facts can be stranger than fiction. There are things in the news that no one would ever believe in a novel. On the other, other hand, some people hold popular opinions that are, in fact, wrong. It can be frustrating to be challenged by someone who has more opinions than facts, especially after I’ve gone to the trouble of finding out what is real.
Some would say you can never do too much research, but is that really true? I have a dear friend that loves falling down research rabbit holes, getting lost in the twining threads of topics until she sometimes loses track of what the original question was. That, I suspect, is too much research, especially if the results never end up on paper. Though, all knowledge is good knowledge, and if you live long enough, you’re bound to use it sooner or later. Or distort the memory over time. Or forget entirely.
Good and dutiful soul that I am, when I found my story required a missing-person investigation, I contacted the local police’s public relations officer and asked for help. She graciously supplied me with the department’s SOP. I was happy to discover that I had included pretty much everything that was in their procedure. I’m not saying it wasn’t good to have verification, but that step might not have been necessary. As a reasonable person, I could deduce what the police are likely to do if someone goes missing, and so my readers would probably accept my assumptions. Or not. A cop might by some odd chance read my story or maybe even someone who has requested a missing person investigation. They’ll notice if I get it wrong.
I’m not sure I have a conclusion. So far, if I find I have no personal experience of something that is necessary to my story, I try to read up, ask someone, go do something, or visit somewhere. Mind you, I don’t plan to kill anyone in order to write a murder mystery, and I’m not likely to ever make it off planet to research a space opera. And, honestly, I’m a bit too old to spend ten painstaking years researching my magnum opus. In the end, I guess the answer is, enough research and the right research is whatever serves the story. Within reason. Still conflicted. Still thinking about it.
Image: Trees near Avebury stone circle, Wiltshire, England. By Marilyn Evans.