How easy is it to just make everything up when writing? Very easy. But how easy is it to give dimension to what you are saying? How easy is it to back up your beautiful, vivid descriptions with the right facts?
As writers, we can create anything we want. We create the characters that inhabit our fictional world, we can create fictional towns or cities, we can turn the weather on and off, we can create life and we can destroy it, we can transport our characters anywhere we wish. What we can’t do (unless you are writing stories set in the future/sci-fi/alternative or fantasy) is change history, nor can we change places that already exist. If your story is set in New York, you must research and know your facts in order to bring your prose to life and make the setting feel real. The same is true of any city or country. Know your facts.
But is it okay to gloss over the reality that sometimes has to enter fiction, just for the sake of being creative and artistic? In other words, you’re making up lots of stuff because you don’t really know enough about the place, the people or customs, or the actual setting of your novel. Well, the simple answer is yes, you could do that, but it’s not the recommended route to take. Besides showing a lack of research and knowledge, by not knowing much about what you are writing about will make you look like an amateur. Agents will not take writers seriously if they can’t get simple facts right.
Facts from Fiction
The right facts help enrich a story. The wrong facts can kill it.
Whether you are writing about the present, the past or even the future, then some research to create a believable background and evoke the senses in every way is necessary.
Your job as writer isn’t just to entertain, but also to teach. The reader may not know anything about the exotic setting of your novel, but through your research (and perhaps experience) you will take them right there and they will learn about it through you. Research breathes life into your narrative and your characters and in turn, that breathes reality into your writing.
Get it right, not wrong
Research isn’t just about the place, the setting, the surroundings or the characters etc. It’s also using the right words, the right descriptions, the right meanings.
Here’s an example how the meanings change. How many of you use the word matador to describe a Spanish bullfighter? The original meaning has been a little lost in translation by writers, movie makers and tourists alike because most people refer to a bullfighter as a matador, even though, originally, it was a toreador that did the fighting (often on horseback). The matador killed the bull, but the word has now become synonymous with fighting the bull as well as killing it. You can see how easy it is to get simple facts wrong.
We love to sprinkle our stories with the flavour and language of another country, but forget to explain what those words mean, e.g. you write about a character in Spain who drinks Café con leche, but you fail to say what it is. Not every reader will know this refers to coffee with milk. In France, you would refer to Café au lait. Again, there will be readers who will not know these little snippets, so let them know.
Don’t be one of those writers who try to impress their readers by offering snippets of information that have not been thoroughly researched. In Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, (a 1987 Booker prize winner no less) she wrote that Muslims pray six times a day. She was born and raised in Egypt and should have known that Muslims pray five times a day. It seems no one checked the facts.
Some very famous writers have managed to turn fiction into what readers believe to be fact. One well-known sensationalist novel does this to such an extent that, while it remains an exciting ‘page turner’, the facts presented are not accurate and so it detracts from the enjoyment of reading it.
Many stories take place in the past. One thing to remember when writing about events in the past is to make sure that you accurately tie in the story with those events. Unless you are writing an alternative history/science fiction or fantasy piece, you can’t change past events in history. That means not placing something like the Watergate scandal (1974) against a story of your 1960’s happy hippy characters, or characters from the 1990’s referring to the discovery of AIDS, when that happened in the previous decade. Many writers still make these fundamental mistakes.
How much research should I do?
There are no rules about how much research you have to do. That is down to you as a writer. In any given novel or short story there could be dozens of strands of research. e.g., if you were writing a story about journalists on the frontline during the during the Iraq-Kuwait war, you will have to know the background of both countries, the landscapes, the major towns and cities, the economic background, the weather patterns, what the troops wore, the weapons they used in 1990, how they operated, the peoples, the cultures, the foods, the languages, not to mention the research you would need to do about journalism and war reporting...and those are just some of the research strands you would have to undertake if you wanted to give authenticity, depth, colour and richness to your story.
Where and how to research
The internet is a good place to start in order to gain the background information to begin with, however, be warned - unless there are citations along with the quoted information, don’t think that what you read on the web is 100% accurate. Check and crosscheck with other sites to make sure. While information is readily accessible on the web, I would still recommend visiting a library. It’s another way of verifying the information you need, but make sure you read recent publications which are up to date with current data.
Of course, if you’ve actually visited the places you’re writing about then that’s even better. It helps you to recreate the flavour and colour of your background and add a touch of authenticity. If at all possible or feasible, go and visit the place you intend to include in your story to gain valuable firsthand knowledge.
The wealth of online documentaries is also a great way of understanding the subject matter of your novel/story. I recently wrote a short story called A Stain on the Heart, for a forthcoming Static Movement anthology, in which a group of English soldiers find a lone German soldier after a skirmish in the Ardennes, against the backdrop of the Battle of the Bulge. I did painstaking research into the battle, the region, terrain and weather at the time, the movement of English, American and German troops, the weaponry, the uniforms, chain of command, the German language and even the type of papers the German character would have been carrying etc. I did this using the internet, military magazines, library books, watching films and watching many invaluable documentaries about the battle.
All that, for a story of 5000 words. Now imagine the research for a novel of 90,000 words.
Sometimes you may have to write to organisations or groups in order to get the information you require. Don’t be afraid to talk to local police departments, local government departments, emergency services, charities, tourist centres, historical societies or museums etc. More often than not, they are happy to assist.
While background information gives reality to writing, some writers make the mistake of filling the narrative with too many facts. As is often the case with writing, you must find a balance of the right amount of information, so unless a scene demands it, don’t pepper it with facts that could otherwise suffocate the creativity of the whole thing.
Things to remember when researching:
• Know your setting – General background details such as local area, street layouts, the surrounding region, the local people etc.
• Research languages if you have characters from different countries that will sometimes utter words which are not in English (or vice versa, if you are a non-English speaking writer who has an English character).
• Know the customs – Different areas, as well as different countries, have different customs and behaviours.
• Know meanings of words that are not always familiar, or are from another language.
• Know the eras when placing characters against events in history. Also, know the social and political history of the time.
• Know the economy and money of the time when your story is set.
• Know the technical and mechanical aspects, especially if you feature vehicles, aeroplanes/airports, ports, or things like weaponry, satellite systems, gadgets etc.
• Know the weather patterns of your place setting – Is the place susceptible to hurricanes, torrential rains, snowstorms etc?
• Know the systems in place for your chosen place setting – transport systems, government and political systems, educational and social systems etc.
• Know key features of place settings – famous buildings, civic centres, parks, museums, ancient ruins etc.
• Know the environment – the type of flora and fauna of your setting, the terrain etc.
• Don’t just window dress – Know even the minutiae of details, things like the livery colours of organisations or police/soldier uniforms, flags etc.
• Know the types of religions practiced within the setting of your story – don’t write about a character entering a church if the story is set in a predominantly Muslim country.
Research your subject matter well if you want to breathe life into your novel and transport your reader right to the heart of your story, but remember, if you think you can just skirt around some aspects of reality in your novel with a bit of made up rubbish, think again. There will be somebody, somewhere, who is eagle-eyed and clever enough to catch you out.
Next time: Tips to strengthen your story