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Robert's Rules of Writing #19: Get Right, or Get Close

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Research. Some writers love it. For others, it is the bane of their existence.

In his nineteenth rule, Masello presents a stand on how much research one needs to do for a piece of writing. He starts off by acknowledging the need to be as accurate as possible when writing nonfiction. But, he says, fiction is a different story. (Forgive my pun.) When writing fiction, Masello says, verisimilitude is more important than accuracy. You shouldn't stress to get every detail absolutely perfect, as long as you have the right details to draw the reader into the story. (An aside: When I was at Clarion, John Kessel taught us the need for significant details. You can't possibly describe everything in a scene, so you need to pick those details that would be most evocative for your reader. We decided that he needed to publish a book, John Kessel's Book of Significant Detail, so we would know what to use in any scene. But I digress.)

Now, on the one hand, Masello's argument makes sense. There's no point in including facts that are simply going to slip by your reader. But on the other hand, you never know who your reader is. Masello mentions how one of his readers, a brain specialist, took issue with his description of the brain in one of his novels, as Masello had misplaced a gland or two. Masello shrugs this off, since it is likely that no other reader knew enough to be confused. But for that one reader, the extra research would have paid off handsomely.

The problem is that an incorrect fact can throw your readers out of the story. I remember reading a Lawrence Block novel a while back in which a character returns to New York City on the Amtrak train the Lake Shore Limited. The train runs from Chicago to Albany via the Great Lakes, and then continues south to New York. Now, in the book, the train pulled into Grand Central Terminal, which might have confused some readers because all Amtrak trains pull into Penn Station. Well, Block must have known that there was a time when all the Amtrak trains that were not part of the northeast corridor pulled into Grand Central Terminal. And I knew this too, because I took the Lake Shore Limited in 1989, when I returned from a summer job at Los Alamos National Laboratory. But by the time the book was published, Amtrak had rerouted all their trains to pull into Penn, and I knew this because I love trains and had kept up with the routing changes. So by relying on memory instead of doing one extra piece of research, Block got a detail wrong. This one little discrepancy briefly threw me out of the "reality" of the story, and I had to struggle a bit to return to the flow.

(Another aside: Block's own take on doing research, as he put it in one of his columns on writing: Watch out for sharp muletas. He once wrote a story where a bullfighter killed a man with a muleta -- which is the cloth the bullfighters wave during the bullfight, and not the sword they use to kill the bulls. Oy.)

So for me, accuracy leads to verisimilitude. But on the other hand, there's no need to go overboard. You may know what's written on the plaque that adorns the bridge that your characters run across as they flee from an enemy. But that doesn't mean they're going to stop and read it aloud, just so your reader will know it as well.

Finally, a personal story on the rewards of good research. Last year, I published "Sanctuary" (Analog, September 2005), a story about a Catholic priest on a space station. My knowledge of Catholicism is inherently limited by my own background as a non-Catholic, and I wanted to make sure I got the details of the story right. So I did research. I searched the web, went to the library to check a few books, and then ran the story by a few Catholic friends, including my inside man at the Vatican. The result? I've had Catholic readers tell me that I know more about Catholicism than most Catholics. Now, I'm the first to admit that I don't, but to receive a compliment like that...it tells me that research pays off.

Comments

Wow, that's quite a compliment!

I'm having that problem now reading Rashi's Daughters. The writing is sound, but the author seems to feel she can't bear to drop a single detail of the research she's done, which gives the opening chapter a very encyclopedic feel.

I'm doing research right now on Irish folktales and oral histories and the New Jersey Department of Youth and Family Services for a novel I'm working on. Of the two, I'm more nervous about DYFS, as anyone who lives in NJ or reads the news may notice anything off and get thrown out of the story, whereas fewer people know Irish legends and there's more variation and wiggle room within that framework.
Some fiction books are written with an audience in mind that wants the details. For example, it hasn't hurt Tom Clancy. But in general, research is best when it doesn't show.
Yeah, I have that problem too. I've been pulling out unnecessary details of a book I've been writing for that very reason.

I found quite a lot of Catholic reference material on the Web. There's also a service called "Ask a Franciscan" (kind of like "asknomi," but it's probably all guys) who answered a question for me.
I think the webpage I consulted about the doxology was written by a Franciscan. But my inside man at the Vatican is a Jesuit.
As a corollory to this rule:

If you are writing science fiction, you had by all that you hold dear get your science right, or you'll have to face my wrath. Which isn't that bad right now, but I'm working on it.

Nothing takes me out of a science fiction story faster than bad science. Note that I'm not talking about the actual fictional parts--I don't mind if you've got fusion rockets or x-ray lasers or AI. But lots of writers will try to use scientific material to flesh out their world, and when they get it wrong, I die a little inside.
There is a balance that must be struck, of course.
The problem is that an incorrect fact can throw your readers out of the story.

Very true! I always get annoyed now at movis where the space shuttle engines fire and then launch at 1 on the countdown, ever since I went to Space Academy (Space Camp for the older kids). Engines fire at 6, in order to have time to launch at 1.

Research is important because there's always someone out there who knows more about something than you. I like to have someone read other things to make sure I got details correct, if I'm working on something I haven't studied in-depth before.
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