Jo Talks Books: On How Important Research Is For Writing

Hi everyone! I know I said in my discussion post last week that I was going to write about DNFing this week, but I had an idea during the week that I’m really excited to write about, so I wanted to do that instead. Inspired by the recent controversy about the new Me Before You film and the news about Todd Strasser’s book American Terrorist, I wanted to write about the role of research in writing and whether it is important or not.

Fiction is made up, a work of the imagination, so naturally it doesn’t have to be entirely grounded in fact (if that were true then the amazing genre of fantasy would not exist and then we would all be worse off) and authors have creative license to create whatever they wish for their books. At the same time, writing doesn’t just come out of nowhere. Ideas come from observations, or things that we have read before or songs, or people we have met, things we have watched, you get the picture, whilst all writing comes from the imagination, that imagination is inspired by something in the world around us and so technically all fiction comes from a place of reality (if that makes sense, I hope it makes sense!) and so it makes sense that you would need research, in order to inform your writing.

I know one of the major tips anyone gives someone who wants to be a writer is “write what you know”, that your writing should be informed by something you have personal experience of, and that’s not bad advice but I think it’s very limiting. Yes, it is good when you tell stories that come from things you have experienced in your life, but your character is not you. They are a different person, who has had different experiences to yours and so that’s where research comes in. For instance, authors who write about teenager with cancer, they probably didn’t have cancer themselves as a teenager, so in order to make their character authentic and believable, it makes sense that they would talk to teenage cancer sufferers about their experiences. Your character may not have the same interests as you do, they may not live in the same place that you do, their world view could be different to yours, the list goes on, so I feel like research is vital to writing. It’s certainly a very important part of my own writing (admittedly I have only written fan fiction not a novel), as I want what I write to be authentic and realistic and in order for my writing to be that, I have to do research. I’d imagine that most authors feel the same way.

Also research is important because if you don’t know what you’re talking about as an author, then it will come across in what you write and readers will be able to tell, because it’s almost guaranteed that there will be someone out there who knows more about what you’re trying to write about than you do and if you know absolutely nothing about what you want to write about, then it will be impossible to write a good book about it. If you don’t do your research, then your whole story will be weakened because of it, it will be easy enough for your readers to find out if you made a mistake.You can also risk offending people if you don’t do your research properly. After all, the whole issue with Todd Strasser’s book, American Terrorist is that it’s offensive to the Muslim community who obviously (and rightly so) do not want to be stereotyped as terrorists and you would think, if both Todd Strasser and Simon and Schuster had done their research properly, then that book would never be written, let alone published. It’s important to get things right when you’re writing, because whilst your characters may not be real, there are real people who will have experienced the same things as your character and you don’t want your book to perpetuate harmful stereotypes, and research is the best way of doing that, especially if you’re writing about a culture that you haven’t experienced, the best way to learn is to talk to someone who has.

There are certain genres of fiction where research is vital to the story, like historical fiction or science fiction. The history or the science has to be accurate otherwise the story will seem all wrong. Of course authors can take some liberties because they are writing fiction and not a non-fiction account. This is best described by Elizabeth Wein in her acknowledgements for Code Name Verity, where she states that she wasn’t looking for everything to be absolutely, completely 100% historically accurate, but she did need everything to be plausible and I agree with her, every last detail of a book does not need to be 100 % accurate, but if it’s realistic, historical or science fiction, I think the story at least needs to be plausible. Research is also vital for writing about anything legal or medical, because if you get it wrong, then as I said earlier on, it’s easy enough for people to figure it out (since the internet can tell you pretty much anything these days) and you will just look lazy. Dystopians also require a certain amount of research, since they are usually based of some kind of sociological problem that we currently have, just amped up a lot, so naturally, research into the sociological problem is required otherwise your whole dystopian society will not stand up. Fantasy, even though the world is completely made up, still requires  research, like constructing an effective swordfight, politics of royal courts, mythology (if your world is based on some kind of mythology), culture (if your fantasy world has people of a different culture), places (if it’s an alternative version of an existing place) etc.

Having said all of this, whilst research is important, as a reader, I can say that one of the things that really bugs me about writers sometimes is when they dump all of the information that they know about a given subject into one or two paragraphs of a book. I love it when authors have clearly done their research because it shows how much thought they have put into their book, and how passionate they are about their subject and that’s great, because when you’re passionate about your topic then your readers will be too, but it’s okay not to dump all of the information that you’ve learned in your book. In fact we prefer it that way. We’d rather you use your research where it flows naturally in the story than just cram it in to show that you know it. The trick is to know how to use it effectively, which I’ll admit, is something that I’m still learning!

So basically, what I’m saying (in a very long winded way, granted!), is that I feel, and I hope most authors do too, that research is important. No you don’t need to become an expert in the subject that your novel is about, but you do need to know enough that your story is plausible and there aren’t any glaring mistakes that your readers can pick out (because we will if they’re really glaring) and that you aren’t unintentionally offending anyone with what you’ve written. Readers appreciate the effort and it makes for a better book (at least in my opinion it does!).

So over to you? Do you think research is important in writing?  Do you think it’s more important for some genres than others? If you are a writer, do you have a research process? If so, what is it? Let me know in the comments!

I will hopefully have a new discussion post for you guys next week, but I won’t tell you what it’s going to be, in case I change my mind like I did this week! In the meantime though, my next post will be my Spring Quarterly Rewind (can’t believe it’s already time for that), which will hopefully be up on Monday!


4 thoughts on “Jo Talks Books: On How Important Research Is For Writing

  1. Brown Books and Green Tea June 17, 2016 / 8:32 pm

    I think I feel similarly to you. Research is very important to me– VERY. Particularly since I read a good amount of nonfiction and historical fiction. But I don’t like feeling like they’re regurgitating facts in the book. It’s just like a regular college term paper. I know of professors who grade down when students can’t discern what’s necessary (and relevant) knowledge, and what’s just word vomit.

    • iloveheartlandx June 17, 2016 / 9:09 pm

      I think the fact that History is part of my degree probably means research is more important to me than most people! No me either, I hate that! It needs to feel natural, like they know what they are talking about, but aren’t just regurgitating a textbook at you!

  2. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel June 19, 2016 / 5:30 am

    Well written article. And so true. Sometimes writers include diversity or stories of other countries in their book just to give it a global appeal. But if not well researched the book would sound like an empty gong

    • iloveheartlandx June 19, 2016 / 12:03 pm

      Thank you! I totally agree, sometimes it does seem like writers just include diversity for the sake of it, but they don’t research well enough about the country or people that they want to write about and it comes off really badly!

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