Write What You Know?

This week I threw a book across the room in frustration. Why? Because the  author had included sloths in her scene but had apparently not done any research on sloths. And sloths are animals I happen to know a thing or two about.

It brought to mind the adage, write what you know. Which I’ve always considered to mean write what you’re willing to research. Because frankly, a lot of the things most of us know are not that interesting.

There will always be some readers who know nothing about the subjects in a particular book. And there will always be some readers who know a lot about those subjects. So how do authors – for the most part – get this right?

Image of a laptop with the Google search page open.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Enough and not too much

If you’re reading a fantasy story, a lot of it can be completely made up, as long as the rules are explained. But if you’re reading about real things, then those things have to work the way they do in real life. So the author needs to know how they work. And what they look like, where they are found, and so on. If not, there will be book throwing.

Some things don’t need to be explained because they are expected. We don’t need to be told why a character in a medieval story had to walk everywhere. Or why spaceships will travel faster than any type of transport we currently have. But if the story includes an unusual type of transport, or something that hasn’t been invented yet, a brief explanation will save a lot of confusion.

It can also be frustrating when authors include too much information. Meaning information that doesn’t help to move the story along. Now I sometimes include the odd fact that isn’t strictly necessary. Some facts are just too interesting to leave out, right? And sprinkling in a few of those extra pieces of information is fine. 

But the practice affectionately known in author circles as the info dump is a sure way to lose a reader’s interest. The author may find the topic fascinating but that doesn’t mean every reader has to become an expert on it. 

The great thing I’ve found about writing book series is that any interesting fact that doesn’t fit in one story, may work better in another. I have pages of interesting facts just waiting for a home.

The right time

The best time for authors to do their research really depends on both the author, and the time period the book is set in. I’m currently writing a story set in the future. Just knowing what to research is a challenge. I decided to write the story, and do research as I go along. 

Sometimes I want something to happen that I don’t have the necessary knowledge to explain. So I look up scientific advances that could make it possible. And then I think long and hard about how much of that information to include.

With historical fiction, there needs to be a fair amount of research done at the start. Because all the details are different from our current lives. And it’s impossible to get into any sort of flow if you have to stop every three words to check something. My favourite historical fiction author, Susanna Gregory, does loads of research. And her books are brilliant because of it.

Contemporary stories may only need research for specific scenes. And that research can usually be done as and when questions crop up. But if a key component of the story is something the author doesn’t know much about, it will require research before the writing commences. Because it’s more likely a reader will know about subjects in contemporary stories than in speculative or historical fiction. And if a reader knows more about something than the author, they’ll spot every mistake.

If the story has a setting the author isn’t familiar with, it needs research before, during, and after, writing. It’s called fact-checking if it takes place after the story is written, and it’s usually done by someone other than the author. But it’s still a kind of research. And it’s a really important one.

Does research really matter in fiction?

From a reader perspective, yes. We learn so much from fiction, whether consciously or not. And if we ever need to rely on that knowledge, we might just be embarrassed, or we might find ourselves in hot water. 

From an author perspective, the answer is also yes. Those of us who have thrown books across the room in frustration will probably never buy another book from that author again. I travel to the countries I write about, to make sure the details are authentic. I don’t think a five minute Google search is too much to ask.

What type of author research enhances your reading experience? What sort of research omissions can spoil an otherwise great book for you? Would you pass a fiction book on to another reader if it had factual errors in it?

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You might also like: You Don’t Choose a Story.

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