Monday, October 1, 2007

Research vs. Invention

Candy Proctor wrote an interesting post today about that authentic feel a reader gets when fiction sounds real, whether it actually is or not. It's an interesting post (and I'm still pondering the concept of "aboutness") but it made me think about the trade-off we need to make whenever we don't have extensive personal experience or some other acquired expertise in the topic(s).

I think there's room for well done fakery in most areas of fiction. No one expects a writer to look up absolutely every fact about everything used or shown or talked about in a story, and sometimes doing so would be a bad idea even if we could. Using a real restaurant -- with the name, location and staff accurately described -- when a character gets a raging case of food poisoning there and dies is a good way to get sued, for example. But even beyond the grasp of the lawyers, a well crafted fake will often work just as well as the real info, at least for the majority of your readers. Weaving research with invention is a valuable skill and writers who are good at it can surround the reader with a seamless mesh of rich detail which all flows and hangs together.

I do like accuracy when I read, of course, but I also like my favorite writers to publish more often than once every five years. [wry smile] And from the writer's point of view, even if the need to earn a decent paycheck a bit more often isn't an issue, it can be frustrating and unsatisfying for a writer or anyone else to put so much prep work into projects that they only get results two or three times per decade. Some people have the mindset to make this sort of schedule satisfying, but for everyone else there's a reasonable balance which can be achieved.

I think the trick is to figure out who your audience is and make some sort of decent squint-and-roll-the-dice estimate as to about how many of them are likely to know more about [whatever] than you do, and make your researching decisions from there. Diminishing returns become a factor eventually and if you get to a point where another year of research will only cut down your nasty letters and sarcastic reviews from, say, five to three, maybe it's not worth the time spent. You might have to just accept that there's going to be some small fraction of readers out there who'll be sneering, but if the vast majority will be reading and nodding and reccing, you're still well ahead of the game.

Not that anyone can estimate reactions that closely, but it's definitely possible to hop onto Google and start reading reviews and other commentary in the genre (and preferably the subgenre) you're writing in. What do the readers want? What do they praise? What do they laugh at? This is really basic information, and for that matter one might hope that anyone writing in a given genre would have already read enough in that genre to know these things, but I've read plenty of stories where it was pretty clear the writer did not know the genre even that well and I'm sure others have too. Even someone new to a genre can find out what the readers like and dislike and scorn with just a few hours spent blog-hopping, though, and I can think of a writer or two who engineered their own downfall by (apparently) not bothering.

Or maybe they just didn't pick up on the subtleties.

One writer wrote a murder mystery a number of years ago set at a science fiction convention. Theme mystery series are popular and this could've been a neat idea, but it was pretty clear to me, as someone who's attended and worked SF conventions for a very long time, that this writer's actual experience of SF cons was extremely minimal, to the point where I doubt she'd ever attended a general SF con of any size. The book was published by TSR (the company which at the time owned the Dungeons and Dragons property) and there was some speculation among friends of mine at the time that maybe TSR had sprung for a couple of free passes to gaming conventions, which are unfortunately very different from science fiction conventions. Or maybe they just described them to her. It was particularly frustrating because so many small details were correct, but they just underscored the major clunkers. Whatever the reason, though, I and a number of others spent the entire book wincing and eyerolling over errors, which was a shame because the writing was decent and the mystery itself was interesting.

It's one thing to get a few minor details wrong, but when the entire setting sounds fake and third-hand to anyone who's actually been there, you've got a serious problem. Especially with something like a theme mystery, where the whole point is to market the books to a special interest group, you're deliberately courting readers who'll know where all your duct taped patches are. :/ It's like writing a police procedural and forgetting about Miranda, or writing a war story about submarines and completely ignoring pressure, or having your hard-SF characters hop into their reaction rocket and fly out to Rigel by lunchtime. These are incredibly basic errors and would signal to any reader at all familiar with the genre that the writer was faking and not doing a very good job of it.

Comparing time and effort spent in research versus your skill when it comes to invention, and balancing the result against the likely return in reader satisfaction is a valuable skill whenever you're writing about things you aren't already an expert at. It requires a strong familiarity with the intended audience, though, and a misstep can do considerable damage to both the story and the writer's reputation.



Charles Gramlich said...

You make some really good points here. I've seen this kind of mistake made a lot in SF, especially older SF. And I've found myself irritated with folks who apparently think fantasy means that 'anything' goes. I read that Mystery at the SF con book you're talking about and felt much the same way you did. The author actually wrote a sequel to that but I've never seen it.

Angie said...

Charles -- Thanks. And I've run into people with that opinion about fantasy too. :/ I've heard more than one aspiring writer chirp happily about wanting to write fantasy because "You can do anything you want!" and don't have to do any research, or apparently any planning or forethought. I did a lot of headdesking near those people.

Re: the mystery, I have some vague memories of a sequel, now that you mention it. [nod]


Travis Erwin said...

Great post. In my most recently completed novel I ahd to invent a Casino since I had several illegal things going on there but I used other real casinos and correct descriptions to decribe the small gambling town of Cripple Creek, Colorado.

Angie said...

Travis -- thanks. :) I think that's the perfect way to do it to, using facts and reality and research and then taking those raw materials and using them along with imagination and logic and real-world experience to invent something new.


KeVin K. said...

The sequel involves a revisiting writers' retreat, which the author certainly knows. And having attended more game cons than sf (actually I was a regular only at Shore Leave and haven't been there in five years) I have to agree she did a fair job of describing a game con.

I write a lot in game universes, so I have to get the game mechanics right -- every one of my readers knows (or is certain they know) more about the universe than I do.

And you know what? I think that level of accuracy is valuable in real life writing as well. Kris Rusch is meticulous in her research. Her Smokey Dalton novels (written as Kris Nelscott) can be used as social history texts and her stories are richer for it. Whenever possible I do as much direct research as I can -- go where I'm writing about and look around. And when I can't.... Hey, I'm old. I learned how to do research in the days of card catalogs. With the internet there are no secrets.

Angie said...

Kevin -- I've only been to one gaming con, as part of the SCA demo, so what I know about them comes mainly from people I know who've gone and from reading about them. (I was involved with a regular gaming group for about twenty years but I've never enjoyed gaming with strangers so there wasn't much reason to go to the cons.) But if it was such a good description of a gaming con, I have to wonder why she labelled it a regular SF convention? :/ She could've made her protag someone who wrote a game-related novel and taken it from there and avoided pretty much every criticism I've ever heard about the book. Weird.


KeVin K. said...

Oh, I didn't mean it was a great description of a game con, just that it was rcognizably a game con. And clearly not an sf con. I think she used the two interchangeably because she didn't know the difference. I did like the humor of her writing -- and liked her other humorous detective novels. Her writing has become much stronger over the years, but her sense of humor -- or at least her fondess for writing humor -- has waned. Very good, very serious novels now adays.

Angie said...

Kevin -- ahh, I see. [nod] Just a fairly major oops, then, especially for something targetted at a niche audience.

Glad to hear she's doing better now. Hopefully her research skills have grown apace. [wry smile]