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Feb. 5th, 2007 | 06:28 pm

Dear Dragon --
I love pirates, and I know they're all the rage now. I'm working on a book about a Pirate Queen on the Spanish Main. I'm finding that I don't know that much about sailing ships. But when I went to the library, the librarian led me to an entire shelf, six tiers high, filled with books on sailing. I was hoping to do the Cliff's Notes version. How important is research? Can I just watch Pirates of the Caribbean over and over again, and wing it?

Dear O&U,

Reseach can certainly be a pain in the tail, as any dragon can tell you. However, it is essential to get the details right. Some people think that research is less important in speculative fiction than in, say, historical fiction or police procedurals. Alas, not so. Oddly enough, people who are willing to believe in fairies (or, for that matter, dragons) are just as unwilling to accept that you don't know port from starboard, or a cutlass from a stilletto. And Heaven forbid you have the wrong kind of glass in 14th Century France! When you write a story, be it mainstream or genre fiction, you are painting a picture in the reader's mind. Errors in research can destroy that image faster than almost anything else.

That said, you can put too much research in. You may indeed have to study 14th Century glass-making techniques to write a three-page scene in your novel. You must resist the urge to pour everything you've learned into the scene, just because you've learned it. If you do this, you run the risk of boring your readers at best, and destroying your word-painting as surely as an error would have. And, of course, your three page scene will become a 30 page scene.

I like to devour books as much as the next dragon, but I also realize I only need to show the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the ice is down there, if I need it.

Dear O+U:

There are readers out there who will sniff out your every weakness--and that includes factual errors. Your job is to create a world so vivid and realistic that your readers get lost in it. Every slip--every penguin at the North Pole, every Betsy Ross sewing a flag with 50 stars--cracks the illusion just a bit.

On the other claw, if you obsess over minor details at the expense of the story--ex; pointing out that giraffes have purple-black tongues just because it’s TRUE, to the point where your readers are looking in giraffe’s mouths instead of at the oncoming poachers--you’ll also have disrupted the flow of your story.

So: Strive for accuracy, but don’t start shedding your scales over it! The story always comes first.

Dear Overbooked and Underwritten,

I can be impatient too, and if some story idea tugs on my tail and I just have to write it right then and there, that’s okay, but if you think you can do all your research from watching a movie...well, that’s just down right lazy. Get the ants out of your pants and do your research online. But be forewarned, not everything on the internet is reliable and you’ll need go to the library to validate your facts.

If all else fails get out those scales and weigh your tales. If they’re too light you won’t have any ballast and if they’re too heavy your ship will sink. Immerse yourself in the history of the time and place; your story will be rich and fluid from the treasures of your research. So set sail for the library and brush up on a little Spanish while you’re at it. You won’t be sorry.

Dear OU,
As you know, there's always someone out there who knows more than you.

I recently read a story where someone had their sailors consulting maps. Uh, MAPS? That was the first sign that I was dealing with someone who hadn't done the most BASIC research. (They're called charts, folks.) You DO have to know your basic stuff.

Conversely, some people suffer from what Ansen Dibell (in her excellent book Plot) called "World Builder's Disease." These are the people who spend all their time researching, inventing languages, drawing pictures of their characters, and making maps...possibly hand-painted on leather. If you do this, you'll never find time to write.

Here's the balance I suggest:
If something in the scene hinges on a device, a place, or a person...you must know the basics about them. Spend your research time there. If it's extraneous to the scene, the research isn't quite as vital.

Ask among your writing associates what books they would recommend on a subject (to save you time). Different people have different areas of expertise. Talk to them. (Bob can recommend books on dead bodies and poisons, but don't bother to ask about American History.) Check out Speculations, where there's a page for "Ask the Expert". Research efficiently.

Details are important. One way to avoid details is to be deliberately wrong. If you are trying to be funny, this can work. Put a microwave in the galley! Go ahead and add extra rooms in the viking ship! If you are trying to be authentic and historical, this would be bad. However, no matter how detailed and grounded your story is, at some point you do have to stop researching it and write it instead. The best thing is to get the basics down, write the story, then run it by a historian or pirate fanatic on a test run.

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