Research – Bane or Boon?
For most authors the need to research is either a love or hate relationship, at least in my experience. There are those writers, and I am one of them, who feel that research is an integral part of telling a good story. The old adage about writing what you know isn’t as cut and dried as it can sometimes appear, but in the end, the more you know about your setting, customs, political atmosphere, and simple geography can make your story go from pop to fizz the moment someone spots the errors.
Realistically, we are none of us perfect storytellers, we make allowances, take liberties with locale and language and a myriad of other things. If you acknowledge those devices your readers will understand you are taking creative license to tell your story, and if the story is one they like, it’ll be forgiven. If you come across as simply too lazy or indifferent to learn the layout of your world, those same readers will roast your artistic ass until you cry. They will see it as an insult to their intelligence if you think you can fool them, or worse, talk down to them by pretending it doesn’t matter. It does. A lot!
The other side of this argument is that sometimes to make the story work, to serve it best, you have to allow the imagination freedom. Nothing in this world is etched in stone, except perhaps monuments. A creative liberty that makes your story flow and thereby come to life with a bit of magic and mystique, is certainly acceptable to readers and other authors. Research will help you shape the mythos you need for your creation. That doesn’t mean you get to reorganize the known world, but if you rearrange a distance in a city to make your plot flow more smoothly, and you acknowledge that, you’re not likely to get the citizens of that city ragging on your book telling you you’re an idiot who can’t read.
Apart from making your story more authentic in tone, research can often lead you to ideas you might never have entertained otherwise. Often, it is in the small details of research that you find gems to mine for your tale. Use them! Readers love the little details that flesh out a story and make it zing. I’ve written a couple of novels in which the backdrop was Victorian London of Jack the Ripper era. The murders are fascinating to read about, even though they are of course gruesome in detail. However, if you look at some of the facts, and marry it to the myth, you can find a wealth of unrelated material upon which to base stories. That’s a reality for most notorious events in history if you’re using them as a backdrop of any kind.
I’ve seen a lot of argument and discussion about “pantsters vs. plotters” but nothing makes a stronger case for plotting than the research you need for some stories. Historical books require realistic background, and social rules of the day. Fantasy worlds need to be built from the ground up, and that means you have to create religious cultures, political situations and climates, if there are intrigues driving your storyline, they have to been carefully presented and understood by your audience. ALL of this goes back to research.
So, is the research a bane to your creative muse, or the boon? That is as varied as the authors we read, but in my opinion only–you can’t have a story that lives and breathes for people if you don’t do the homework before you begin the writing process. The words flow better, like a river, if they know what direction to go. Meandering might be fun for awhile, but too much of it gets you–and your readers–lost in a sea of confusion. And, that gets both annoying and betraying to the audience that’s invested their time and money into your ability to entertain them for a time. I think that’s a thing worth consideration, and a bit of invested time on the part of writers who care about their stories, and their readers. It’s a bit like a sacred trust to the readers who return over and over to buy our books.
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