Tuesday, March 30, 2010

How Important is Research?

A reader e-mailed me (all the way from New Zealand! Go kiwis!) to ask this question: All the writer sites I visit and book acknowledgements I read have something in them about research. How important is this? I mean, I know its important to get your facts right, but is that enough to get by? Do I need to have every aspect of my stories researched, will it be terrible if I don't?

The answer, as it often is, is both yes and no.

Some things you just plain need to get right. Like if you're writing a historical novel (a book set in a time period other than now) it's very important to get your facts right. How people dressed, the political environment, social standards, etc. Nothing takes me out of a historical novel quicker than when I read something that I just know is wrong. (Only slightly more annoying is what we call "info dumps," where the writer has obviously researched a subject and darn it, they're going to use every fact they know about place settings in the 1820s!)

Or if you have a plot line about someone getting killed by a poison. Make sure it's a poison that could actually kill them. Or if a character says something like, "97% of all sea turtles live to be 50." Research that, and make sure you know where that character read it.

Some things you should get right, but for some reason it's acceptable to not. The topic springing to my mind right now is pregnancy. Oh my gosh does TV get pregnancy wrong. Like, only 10% of women have their water break. And there's no "moment" when you first feel the baby move. Instead you're like, "Was that the baby? Or gas?" And you do that for about 2 weeks until you get your first definite kick. But you know what? Wonderful TV shows that I love and enjoy misportray pregnancy all the time, and I still tune in.

Some things you can fudge because it makes your audience happy. Again, babies are coming to mind. (Boy, you'd think I'm pregnant or something.) Like on the last (second to last?) episode of Friends. Monica and Chandler are in the delivery room with the girl having the baby they're going to adopt. The baby comes out, and ... yay, it's a boy! How exciting! But wait. There's a surprise for us. Turns out the girl is having two babies and she was just too dumb to know it. The next baby comes out a girl, and now Monica and Chandler have their perfect family, and we can all be happy.

Yeah. I can maybe go along with the fact that the girl is too dumb to realize the doctors had told her she was having twins (maybe) but what I can't go along with is that the adoption agency wouldn't know, and wouldn't have done a special search for parents who wanted to adopt twins. There's just no way. But am I going to complain? No, because I'm happy with how things turned out.

I'm also guilty of something like this in my book Out with the In Crowd, but I've yet to hear anyone complain about it. (If you've read the book and don't know what I'm talking about, e-mail me and we can chat. Don't want to ruin a surprise for those who haven't read it yet.)

Some things are different for everybody. Like turning 16. Or how they feel about their parents getting divorced. Or what their first kiss was like. Or the effects alcohol has on them. These are things that you maybe do a little research about, but you do it slyly, just by living life. There's no need to google, "How does one feel about turning 16?"

I hope that's a sufficient answer. Have a question of your own? E-mail me, and I'll see what I can do.


  1. Totally agree, Stephanie. I think one of the reasons you have to be careful is because people have an interest in reading books about things close to their hearts--which means they know about them. So if someone picks up a book solely because it's set in their hometown (or in an era they love or about a subject like dancing, which is their dream . . .) then they discover the author got it ALL WRONG, they will likely never read a book by that author again.

    There are definitely some things readers will just grant (Like my character's sudden realization of her baby moving;-), but others that will have them tossing the book against the wall. Gotta be careful to avoid those wall-bangers!

  2. THAT'S what I left out - cities.

    I predominately set my books in Kansas City because it's where I live, where I went to high school, and what I'm comfortable with. For the most part, the setting details in my book are 100% accurate. But a few things got made up because it was just plain easier. Like Connor and Skylar go to Shawnee Mission High School, which doesn't exist. There's Shawnee Mission North, Shawnee Mission South, Shawnee Mission East, Shawnee Mission West, and Shawnee Mission Northwest, but there's no plain Shawnee Mission. The only people who notice this are KC people, and they all get that I'm doing it so I don't misportray or pick on one of the schools.

  3. And that sort of thing is even recommended--make up your schools, churches, often places of business if they play an important role (like don't make you heroine own a REAL bakery), but don't you dare say there's a bowling alley in a town that doesn't have one. ;-) Or, worse, a lake in a town that doesn't have one.

    Hence why people often just make up whole cities. Totally acceptable! =)