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July 2019
 
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Thoughts on Writing

#43: Research Is Love

by Seanan McGuire


Context is also love. Bearing that in mind, here's today's expanded thought:

Your ass is for sitting on, not for talking out of. If your characters are supposed to be gun experts, talk to some people who shoot guns. Read some books about guns. If the books don't make sense to you, hand your manuscript pages to someone who knows guns and say "please fix." My original draft of Feed literally included "INSERT VIROLOGY HERE," because when I wrote that chapter, I hadn't finished designing my virus. I finished my virus, double-checked my epidemiology, went back, and finished that scene. If you don't know what you're talking about, learn enough to fake it.

Authors very rarely write about characters that are exactly like them, down to the classes they took in college and the things they know how to cook for dinner. In almost all cases, even when writing "realistic fiction," we're going to be writing about characters who know things that we, as authors, don't necessarily know. Sure, we'll probably stick them in our areas of interest, because those areas interest us, but how do we deal with the fact that our characters actually know things we don't? How do we make it work?

It's time to talk about research, faking it, and when it's acceptable to bluff. Ready? Good. Let's begin.

You Don't Know Everything.

Let's start this from a very simple premise: you don't know everything. Before you get insulted, let me stress that I don't know everything, either. Neither does that guy over there, unless that guy happens to be some sort of deity, in which case, it's probably best that you don't bother him. The world in which we live is full of things, full of facts, and full of stuff that we don't know.

Ignorance and stupidity are not the same thing. Not knowing something doesn't make you dumb; it makes you someone who has not yet learned something. Believing that we must know everything in order to be smart, on the other hand, runs a decent chance of making us dumb, since once you've decided that you know something, it becomes a lot harder to actually learn. Especially as authors, it's important that we remember that we're allowed to have areas of specialization, areas we know a little bit about, and areas in which we are completely uneducated. We're not expected to be walking encyclopedias, capable of speaking with authority on every subject known to man.

We are, however, expected to do our research.

Research. It Does a Body Good.

There are a great many ways in which to do research. You can read books (recommended). You can talk to people who are actually working in the field or fields that you're writing about (also recommended). You can look it up on the Internet (recommended with strong reservations). And, if you're writing about something practical, rather than theoretical, you can try to set up whatever situation you're describing and see what happens.

For book research, it's a good idea to check with people you know who have some interest in the topic and see whether they have any recommendations. Keep in mind that their biases will inform their suggestions. If you were to ask me for books on the Black Death, I would provide a wide variety of sources that support the hemorrhagic fever theory (my personal best candidate for the source of the pandemic). I would not, however, be able to provide you with many sources that coherently argue for bubonic plague as the source of the Black Death, because those sources are not relevant to my interests. They don't fit my biases, and so they don't remain in my library. It's a good idea to get book recommendations from more than one person, if at all possible.

For personal research, keep in mind that when you ask people questions, even if you're asking them questions about something they really love to talk about, you are asking them to do you a favor. They're under no obligation to talk to you, or to point you in the right direction. Be polite. Be direct. If they tell you they can't help you, be understanding, and move on to the next name on your list. Most writers are happy to help each other out—I've been a subject matter expert for several people, on different topics—but even if you're asking them to talk about their favorite thing in the entire universe, you're asking them to do you a favor. They don't have to do it. They're under no obligation to help you out. So keep that in mind, and be nice.

Also remember that if you're asking someone who is an actual subject matter expert for help, you're admitting that they know more than you do. Don't correct them just so that you'll be able feel smart. Take notes, ask questions, and consult multiple sources. Yes, experts can be wrong. No, they won't be inclined to keep helping you if you argue with everything they say. (Please note that I am not saying "take every word as golden gospel." If someone says something you know is wrong, you should absolutely ask about it. But if I ask "how does this work?" and then answer everything you say with "no, it works this way," you're probably going to hit me with a brick and refuse to finish our tutorial.)

For Internet research, remember that absolutely everyone gets to look like an expert on the Internet. You can find real facts about real things, but you need to check and cross-check them, because you can also find fake facts, bullshit, conjecture, unchecked references, lies, damned lies, and statistics. The Internet makes it easy to not only get things wrong, but to spread that wrong information far and wide, infecting unsuspecting researchers like yourself. I love the Internet. It makes my job much easier. I also hate the Internet, because it turns everyone into an expert, and two-thirds of the "expert opinions" created by the Internet are wrong. I can usually ignore this, but when those "experts" try to give me their expert opinions on things I actually, y'know, studied, I sort of see red.

Use the Internet to find out where to start looking. Learn how to tell the real facts from the fake facts, and then go nuts.

What Do You Mean, "Practical"?

Practical research is...well, think Mythbusters. Kids, don't try this at home.

Sometimes, you have a question so weird, or a scenario so out-to-lunch, that no one can answer it/tell you how it would go. Those are the situations that call for practical testing. Please do not take this as a license to blow yourself up, as I do not wish to be sued by your estate. That said, there's little replacement for hands-on experience. Go to a firing range when you're writing about characters with guns. Go hiking in Muir Woods when you're writing about characters who go hiking in the woods. And so on. Yes, this can extend all the way to "build a flame-spitting robot dinosaur"; if you choose to take it that far, you'll be very welcome at Burning Man.

My best recommendation regarding practical research is that you do some book learnin' first, just so you'll know what you're in for. I do not, for example, recommend hiking in any forest without first learning about the local wildlife, as rattlesnakes do not respect "sorry, didn't know you were here" as a reason not to bite you. I also recommend taking gun safety courses before visiting the range, and learning how not to blow your fingers off before experimenting with fireworks. Don't break any local laws, don't break yourself, and if you can, don't break any windows.

Why Am I Doing All This?

Because learning is fun! And because it will not only make your book or story better, it will make you a better author. Research. It's the gift that keeps on giving.
© 2012 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with three cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded three albums, and published several novels. In 2010, she was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in the field of science fiction and fantasy. She is nominated for four Hugo awards in 2012, including Best Related Work for her music album, "Wicked Girls".

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