Chapter Six: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Researching Fiction

Series Note: I am now working on updating each chapter and putting together this book, finally, after over 100,000 words that started back in 2009. So I am updating each chapter and putting it up here now for those who have not seen them.  One new updated chapter every few days will still take me all summer to finish. Feel free to make comments and talk about each topic.

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Researching for a short story or novel is one of what I call the half-truth myths. Yet I have known writer after writer that have had entire careers stopped cold by this myth. It takes a writer a certain time and distance to find the right half-way-point with research in fiction.

So let me see if I can make some sense out of this.

Fact: Nonfiction writing requires you get it right, that you have your research done correctly in all ways and even documented correctly. No discussion on that at all. If you are writing nonfiction, research is not only a part of the process, it might be the most important part.

But this chapter, and all the chapters in this book, talk about fiction writing, and that’s where research jumps into the problem area. In fact, recently I was teaching a workshop with young professionals and this topic came up as a pretty solid roadblock for one of the writers. Of course, that writer was a full-time nonfiction writer and was carrying over the belief system into the fiction.

So let me repeat here clearly what I told that writer. If you have this myth issue, print this out as a big sign and put it over your computer.


Yup, I shouted that. Fiction, by its very definition is made up. Duh.

So now comes the really ugly word that I had to look up to spell right:

Verisimilitude: An appearance of being true.

That’s the exact definition from my dear old Oxford American Dictionary.

So, in fiction, we writers make stuff up. I give my job description as a person who sits alone in a room and makes stuff up.

But what I make up needs to have the appearance of being true, if not in detail, in character action and emotions. It doesn’t have to be true to some tiny fraction of the reading public, but it has to feel right to everyone else.

There is where the myth is true and not true.

In every story we need enough detail to make it feel right. That does not mean it has to be right, it just has to feel right.

Now details are easy when dealing with alien cultures in a science fiction novel, really hard when writing a period historical. No reader cares that you make up some gun or some uniform in space, as long as you make it seem logical to the society you are writing about. But historical readers who love certain historical time periods will care when you bring matches in a few decades too soon. Or heaven forbid have the wrong gun.

So why am I calling this a myth?

For the simple reason that I have heard over and over and over young writers use this research myth as an excuse to not write. The statement goes something like this:

“I can’t get to that story. I just have too much research to do.”

Of course, that writer never writes because every story that writer picks has too much research to do. That writer clearly isn’t a writer, but a researcher, and should realize that and go get a job doing what they love: researching.

Or, more likely, the person is afraid for one of many reasons to actually write and actual finish a story. And doing research sounds like such a noble excuse to tell your family and workshop.

Research is safer than actually writing.

But if your dream is to be a fiction writer, sit down and make stuff up. Follow Heinlein’s Rules. It really is that simple.

Or, let it put it as bluntly as I can:

Writers with the problem of never writing because of research have chosen to not write.


As with many things in writing, the answer is “It depends on the story you are writing.”

But I can safely say this after listening to other writers for decades on this topic and knowing my own patterns with research:

You will almost always do too much.

Again, you just have to do enough to make it feel right to the large majority of your readers. And trust me, putting in all your research is mostly just dull. In fact, if you are getting feedback on stories that go “You have too many information dumps,” then you might want to try writing a story without any research.

That might not be the problem, but often it is. We are all human. Once we do all that work on research and spend all that time, we want it in the book.

Truth: Most research you do does not belong in your story.

A general rule is to do just enough research to feel comfortable writing about the topic in a fiction story.


1…Write for the majority or readers, not a small faction.

For example, when using a medical procedure, make it feel right, but don’t try to write for an MD who does practice. That way lies madness, and you won’t get it right anyway. Write just enough so that it feels correct to layman.

Another example is the CSI programs on television. Anyone who knows anything about lab techs in crime labs know they are not front-line detectives, but for the sake of fiction, the authors combined crime lab techs and detectives into one person to make interesting FICTION. They use cool machines that no city can afford in real life, and everything is done in minutes instead of months. But again, IT’S FICTION! And sometimes pretty good fiction, as far as story goes.

So stop writing for the minority and write for the majority of us who just like a good story told well.

2…If you need to do research to get it to feel right, do that while writing another story.

I am often researching a project ahead of writing it, as I should if the story needs it. But does that mean I don’t write? Nope. I research one project while finishing up another. Therefore, research never gets in the way of writing.

Here is the statement that gets me and Kris is so much trouble so often. Ready?

Researching is not writing.

If you have carved out writing time, spend it creating new words.

3…You run across a detail you don’t know when writing.

And say you can’t find it quickly, just leave a white space where the detail is needed and make a note to add it in when you run through with your fix draft. Then research it after you are done with the story.

4…Make it up and move on.

Yup, I said that. It’s fiction, so if you don’t know something, pretend like you do, pretend like your character knows exactly what they are talking about, write it so it feels real (verisimilitude), and move on. 99% of your readers won’t notice and those that do notice aren’t really your readers.

5…Pick story ideas that don’t need research.

Let me simply say, “Duh.” I am a master at this art. My wife has a degree in history. I have a degree in Architecture. Which one of us loves research would you assume? She is always doing research and often helps me when I need something quickly. She loves it. I try to pick stories that need no research for the most part. She likes doing research to feel comfortable in writing. I don’t need that comfort factor to the same degree as an historian would.

Back to what I have said in every chapter: Every writer is different.

I just recently finished a wonderful project set in Milwaukee, WI and the city and areas in the city were critical to the book. The editor on board lived there and offered to help with anything I needed about the city and I was constantly back and forth with him getting details on his wonderful city. In fact, a couple of times he had to go look at a neighborhood for me. So getting help is another clue, but I was writing and working on the book and other stories at the same time.

But again, try to find projects that don’t need research if research stops you from writing. It really is that simple.


Just to be clear, I am saying that some projects in fiction require some research and it needs to be done, but not all projects require research, so you should never, ever, let research stop your writing.

If you hear yourself say, “I can’t write this book until I do the research.” And you are not writing something, anything else, then this belief system of needing to do research is slowing you down or stopping you. And that’s when research in fiction turns into an ugly sacred cow.

And why this chapter needed to be in this book.

When all else fails, just remember:



Copyright © 2011 Dean Wesley Smith
Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery got a lot more valuable lately. This is now part of my inventory in my bakery. I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately really kept me going on this. Thanks!

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

Thanks, Dean


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45 Responses to Chapter Six: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Researching Fiction

  1. David Barron says:

    The extent of my research for fiction is just reading a lot of non-fiction on topics that interest me to build up a ‘big picture’ of the ideas, then letting all that spill organically from my mind onto the page via my fingers tapping fast across the page. I assume it’s called “Refilling The Well” and a recent fer’Xample (from me) is here:

    I think there’s two ways that research can actively hinder writing. As you say, I’ll always do too much, which is a waste of time…but also I’ll always USE too much. Whether subconsciously or from actively not wanting to ‘waste’ research, it’ll work its way into the piece and strangle the story with information. Boring.

    My theory is if I accidentally do too much research, I should write a non-fiction article to siphon some of it off before I use the dregs to write some cool fiction.

  2. Carradee says:

    Basic research isn’t hard. I’ve come up with entire short stories just by researching something that interested me on Wikipedia.

    (Where and when did the Inquisition first start? Wait, that pope got kicked out of Rome within a few years?) (What are the Norse undead creatures? Wait, they could be shapeshifters?)

    I then leave Wikipedia to seek brief verification of what’s on there, but I don’t sweat it.

    If I do get distracted and sucked into a research vortex, I pull what applies to the story, and I consider what other story or stories I could write to make use of some of the other research.

  3. Excellent reminder. Not to mention reaffirmation for me. Sometimes I feel guilty I don’t do tons of research (even though I love it) as I prefer to just write the darn story. But there’s that annoying myth…

    It’s one of the things I love about writing urban fantasy. Next to no research. I also set the first book in Portland, Oregon which is my hometown. I know it so well that other than a quick glance at a map now and then (Yay, Google!) I didn’t need to research the city at all. Ditto for the second book which is set in London where I live now.

    I did put a little history in it (One of the characters was a Templar Knight.), but again, Google to the rescue. Takes seconds to type in “swords of the Crusades” and then decide which of the popular swords to choose. :-)

    Also, I’m lucky enough to have a retired police chief as an uncle so I emailed him. “Jim, if a person died in Madras, Oregon…” He loved helping me.

  4. David – Great idea about writing a non-fic article to siphon off the research! :-)

  5. That tip “leave a blank space and move on” should be drilled into every new writer. I was maybe half-way through my first novel (historical) before I cottoned on to that. I finished the second half in a quarter of the time.

  6. I get where you’re coming from, Dean, but I’m not sure I totally agree.

    For me, I really want stories that are based on real things to be as true to those real things as possible. And it pissed me off when it becomes clear that the writers didn’t do even the most basic, easiest amount of research necessary to accomplish that.

    I found the redone Hawaii Five-O to be fricking annoying. The reason I disliked it is because of how horribly wrong it is on some technical issues. A) The main character often calls his hot girlfriend, who’s a Navy Lieutenant, and gets her to re-direct spy satellites whenever he needs it, so they can help located bad guys for him. Wow, there are so many things wrong with that. First, a lowly LT doesn’t have the capability, or the authority, to do that. Second, even if she could, there aren’t spy satellites just hanging out over the Hawaiian islands on a moment’s notice. B) In one episode, the bad guy overrides a satellite signal received by the tsunami warning headquarters in Ewa Beach using a laptop and a radio transmitter on a boat in the Ala Wai Marina, in Honolulu. No. Can’t happen. UHF and EHF transmisstions, which are what satellites use, are extremely directional. To supercede the satellite you’d have to be flying, stationary, over the receiver in the exact angle the satellite transmission takes, and have a signal significantly more powerful than the one the satellite transmits. Sitting on a boat twenty miles away wouldn’t work. It’s physically impossible.

    Was I being too nitpicky there? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Especially since the reality of those two situations completely undermines the premise of the ENTIRE episode.

    The worst part about these errors is that they’re not some deep dark secrets. These are facts that any person with access to Google could learn in less than five minutes. But the writers of those episodes didn’t even bother to attempt to learn.

    And that’s what irritates me. You want to take some liberties? Fine. But if you’re writing a story that claims, even by implication, to have some basis in reality, I think you owe it to your audience to make at least some marginal attempt to reflect reality. It’s disrespectful, and lazy, to do otherwise.

    • dwsmith says:


      Sorry I had to take part of your comment out. I just don’t allow critiques of my stories here. Honestly, just don’t care what a few writers think of my work.

      Where I am coming from is that if you think you need to do research, do it while you write something else. The myth is that writers feel that research is writing time and it is not.

      This is fiction. CE, clearly that thriller writer is not a writer you should be reading. I would have gotten that wrong as well. And would not have cared to be honest.

      I know that attitude makes me less of a writer in some of your opinions, but caution, those opinions may be slowing down your writing and production. Not saying it is, just saying take a look at your own work.

      I do my best to get details right, but I sure don’t think I have to visit every place I write about and I sure don’t think I have to research every detail before I write it. I tell stories.

      And folks, as I said, IT’S FICTION!!!!!! Sometimes I just make crap up. If you are looking for reality, go read nonfiction.

      Research is fine. All of us do it. The point of this myth article is to make sure you don’t research and call it writing. It is not.

    • dwsmith says:

      Michael said, “And that’s what irritates me. You want to take some liberties? Fine. But if you’re writing a story that claims, even by implication, to have some basis in reality, I think you owe it to your audience to make at least some marginal attempt to reflect reality. It’s disrespectful, and lazy, to do otherwise.”

      Well, we sure don’t agree on that point. If you want reality, read nonfiction. This is fiction. And making something up is not disrespectful to anyone, it’s called fiction. If you want to learn facts, real facts, for heaven’s sake stop reading fiction. And go look up the definition of fiction in the dictionary. And Michael, why would you watch a show like Hawaii Five-O or CSI or any of those other made-up for story cop shows??? Of course none of them are accurate. They are fiction.

      And trust me, calling me lazy because I make stuff up is like calling a doctor lazy because they save a human life. It my job description to make stuff up. If you don’t like it, please, for all of us fiction writers who make stuff up as a job description, stop trying to change our job description because you don’t like us making stuff up. Go read and be critical of nonfiction writers. It is a nonfiction writer’s job to get it right.

      My job is to make it up. And I do just that. Sorry.

  7. Camille says:

    I use research in the early creative part. It’s like sitting there and letting ideas and details waft past and I get to grab them as they go by.

    If I don’t feel comfortable with the subject or the setting, I generally don’t write it. (Or I let the idea sit and percolate until it moves somewhere more comfortable for me.)

  8. James A. Ritchie says:

    My research method is pretty cut and dried. I do heavier research for the next project, not the one I’m currently writing.

    My research tends to be the same each time. Assuming I’m writing in an area where I know next to nothing, I read two books on the subject, inserting bookmarks when I find a detail I think I’ll need. That’s it.

    Any additional research comes during the writing process, applied as needed. If I can’t find an answer withing five minutes, I insert Note One: What the heck did they call that kind of armor?

    At the next spot, I type Note Two: Did they use tobacco in1529?

    After the first draft is finished, I do a find search, and type in Note One. This takes me to the first unanswered question, and I do whatever research it takes to find an answer.

    It does, of course, depend on the type of book, how much you already know, and how you want to write it. A novel such as Hunt For Red October certainty required a heck of a lot more research than many other types of novels.

    But I’ve also found that the quickest form of research is often just calling or e-mail an expert in a field. Most experts are happy to take about what they know, and getting just a few insider details can add a ton of verisimilitude.

    • dwsmith says:

      James, I’m like you. If I know a future project needs some research, I do the research while I am writing a project that either doesn’t need the research done or one that I have already done the research for. I write one, research another. Same thing. And honestly, for me, I love talking with people who are experts in a field. One of the questions I often ask is “Do I really need to worry about (this or that) detail?” A lot of the times the expert will laugh and say ten people would notice if I got it wrong.

  9. C.E. Petit says:

    If you are using real-world settings, then you need to visit them and make sure you understand them… unless you want to throw knowledgeable readers out of the story. Here’s an example from one paragraph in a current bestselling conspiracy thriller that caused me to question a lot of other things:

    In a very early chapter, the protagonist stops at the main gate at Bolling AFB, DC for an ID check, at which a uniformed soldier checks her ID. She glances up at the steel-and-glass Defense Intelligence Agency building inside the base, then passes through the checkpoint. As she pulls into the parking lot, she sees two military officers raising the flag for the day, so she stops during the flag-raising before going into her office.

    This sequence tells me that the author never actually did or personally observed those things.

    (1) From the main gate at Bolling AFB, one cannot see the DIA building; the headquarters building for the Air Force District of Washington, and for the base itself, is in the way (which is where my office was). Only well back from the gate, before entering the base, can one see the DIA building. Similarly, one cannot see the DIA building from the south gate of Bolling due to hills and buildings (like the Air Force Historical Research Center, where I also spent a lot of time) between the gate and the northwest corner of the base. One can, however, see the DIA building from either the gate entering Anacostia NAS (which is contiguous with and immediately north of Bolling AFB), which is (usually) manned by civilian security specialists from the Secret Service (because Anacostia NAS is where Marine One — the President’s helicopter — is based) and not uniformed military personnel, or from the gate between Anacostia and Bolling, which is similar.

    (2) Although everyone would stop for a flag-raising, it would not be done by “officers,” even at a headquarters (and especially at this one). Instead, it would be done by enlisted personnel or cadets… and at Bolling, it was done for the base by the Air Force Honor Guard, which is stationed there, and (while I was at Bolling) by Marines at the DIA building.

    This threw me out of the story in a single paragraph. It made me more skeptical of other aspects of the descriptions, and made other errors jump out at me.

    I am not saying that authors need to live their entire stories and backstories before writing them. I think that what Our Gracious Host is getting at is that authors need to develop some judgment for what is important in a work of fiction, and that must be somewhat context-sensitive. For example, let’s assume for a moment that the errors I described above were not in a conspiracy thriller, but in a postmodernist literary novel, or a capital-R Romance. In those contexts, the details to which I objected wouldn’t matter. Conversely, in a military SF novel, details about how a protagonist’s choice of name-brand cologne/perfume before heading to the (inevitable) group-bonding brawl at the NCO Club don’t matter for verisimilitude.*

    * I’m leaving the “K-mart realist” school out of it, as its practitioners have much graver sins to answer for at a far more fundamental level than this. Or perhaps I’m just a bit embarassed that the research and background for that never-finished dissertation might be showing…

  10. Nancy Beck says:

    I love doing research; I sometimes think I should have become a research librarian or something. 😉

    I’ve worked on and off on an historical fantasy for years. I always had it in the back of my mind that I was writing from the wrong character’s viewpoint, so I took a writing course that I thought would help me get it into the right character’s viewpoint.

    It did.

    But I decided to put that aside when I realized I was still doing too much research and not enough writing. I started on a contemporary fantasy, don’t have to worry about much research. (In fact, the first of the trilogy had absolutely no research required whatsoever. Nice, for a change.) The second one, which I’m already writing even as I deal with the formatting and cover stuff for the first, had some research attached to it, but all it was was a few lines in a book with fantastical creatures in it (I left a space to fill in the more exact things this creature will do rather than spend a bazillion hours looking it up).

    Will I get back to that historical fantasy? Probably. But at the moment, I’m actually enjoying not worrying about research, which is a first for me.

  11. This is great. It is really easy to get caught up in the research–an hour to figure out x, y, or z, and then you’ve lost an hour of writing time.

    I write historical fiction and I agree that it’s one thing to have your character eat potatoes in the Middle Ages, and another to invent a second cousin. My joke is that my books are obsessively historically accurate–except when they’re not :) But my intent, when they’re not, is to know it, know why I changed it, and make it true to the story. Not to mention, I find that the best plan is to cut a minimum of 90% of the history that I wrote into it on the first draft on the second time through.

    That said, I’m working on something sci fi right now and it is incredibly liberating not to have to do a ton of research. Wow! I can make it up as I go along!

    • dwsmith says:

      Sarah, I love your attitude. My fiction is accurate to detail except when it’s not. For example, that story set in Silver City, Idaho I just wrote a few stories back. I used to go with my parents up to that ghost town deer hunting when I was a kid and have returned numbers of times as an adult. I have been in old gold mines there as well when I shouldn’t have been. And the setting and such is as accurate as I could make it because I like the area. But there are two thousand people on the entire planet who have been up to that remote part of Idaho and who might know that I got a detail wrong.

      The key is did I spend one minute of writing time doing research to please those two thousand people? Nope. Research is not writing and that’s the point of this.

  12. As part of the initial design/planning, one can research enought to feel comfortable. Then as you’re pounding out the deathless prose in the first draft, if you run across something for which you need the answer, put in some symbols like ~~~ and research the specific question only.

  13. Tori Minard says:

    Just gotta chime in here. For me (speaking as a reader) I can and do overlook research mistakes as long as the story is good. Since I read a lot of romance, that means there has to be a lot of chemistry between hero and heroine. I dislike romances where we’re told the two love each other or are hot for each other and yet there’s no real evidence for it in their actions/thoughts/feelings. So, if the story is rocking along, I’ll overlook mistakes that I find. But if the story is unconvincing and THEN I find a mistake, it tends to grate on my nerves like crazy. I think my dislike of the overall story makes me more critical about the details.

    On the other hand, when a writer sets her story in a particular historical period but doesn’t seem to know anything about that period except “they rode horses and the women had long skirts,” that does irritate me. But I know there are a lot of readers out there who couldn’t care less.

    As a writer, I think Dean’s advice is good. If you’re using research as an excuse not to write, you’re hamstringing yourself. Pick a different genre or something and go for it. I know I used to use this, and related myths, to block myself. I really used to believe, for example, that in sci fi your story idea had to be Totally Original or else it wasn’t worth writing. Well, that’s silly. Nothing is totally original anyway, and nothing is perfectly researched either. Besides, there’s a lot we don’t know about the past, and people who are nitpickers about that stuff often (in my experience) think they know more than they do.

    Maybe if you’re an expert in a certain area (like the military or medicine) you can’t fully enjoy stories about it because of the artistic license the writer inevitably takes. I know that’s been true for me in one of my major life interests — the occult. Boy, the way that’s been played in fiction is both funny and painful to me. But you have to stretch the truth or people won’t be interested in the story, because the truth just isn’t as full of flash and dazzle as most readers want. At least in my experience — I’ve never seen anyone get thrown across the room by the “otherworldly energy,” but I’m not omniscient and who the hell knows, maybe it has happened to somebody. As I’ve learned to lighten up about that stuff, I’ve had a lot more fun and success in writing paranormal, that’s for sure.

  14. C.E. Petit says:

    I obviously wasn’t clear enough about something…

    In a story in which details of type x matter to the plot and to character decisionmaking, get x right. In a story which details of type x are used as part of the milieu, or as color and gapfillers, that’s less important.

    In the example I gave* details like those I criticized matter; they all relate to the verisimilitude of a conspiracy theory. I tried later to make clear that in many other types of works, those details would not matter, so they would not require a visit.

    My point, ultimately, is that “how accurate” is a context-sensitive question; sorry if that wasn’t clear enough.

    * Which I was not reading for pleasure. In my business, I must maintain current awareness of what is actually “selling”… so I force myself to read a lot of stuff I would either never pick up or throw at the wall.

  15. Randy says:

    As we say in the news business…

    “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story!”

    • dwsmith says:

      Randy, now that worries me about the news. (grin) But it does fit in fiction. “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” Spot on.

  16. My opinion: realism can help make a story richer, but letting it get in the way is silly. My solution is to be highly selective about my details.

    For example, I set a story in a small ski town I’d never been to. I confirmed that there was a country bar in town where one of the scenes would take place (google, five minutes of my time). Then I intentionally didn’t name or provide a detailed description of the bar. Someone familiar with the town would go, “oh yeah, he’s talking about X” but at the same time not get out bent out of shape if I put the bathrooms in the wrong place.

    So if a detail’s accurate and would help the story and easy for me to get, I throw it in. If not, I get vague. That solves the problem of readers getting irritated because something’s wrong without requiring me to do a lot of research to be sure it’s right.

  17. Ken says:

    I write a ton of nonfiction (scientific papers) and for me the single most fun thing is to make something up and then MAKE IT be true (e.g. by building it and proving it can be done.)

    You don’t get there by reading the literature (researching background and facts).

    And I try to bring the same attitude to my fiction.

    Trust me, if any of the computer stuff on TV were factually correct it would be boring as a Museum of Dirt.

    Making most of it up is more fun for all of us.

    • dwsmith says:

      Ken, I agree completely. Making it all up is a ton more fun.

      Big Ed, I do the same thing. In that one story set in the old ghost town of Silver City, Idaho, there was a smaller town down the stream from it called Dewey and there was a big hotel there, now all gone of course. So I didn’t have to worry about getting the details inside the hotel right. But I did put it in the hotel that used to exist. Close enough. I didn’t need to research what the inside of the hotel looked like for the ten people on the planet who might have seen an old historical picture of the inside of that hotel. I just made it up.

  18. Dean,

    I actually didn’t mean to call YOU lazy. I was intending to speak more generally. I’ve learned more than enough about you and your work ethic from reading your posts to know better than that.

    So, I chose my words poorly there. My apologies.

    Allow me to rephrase. I can totally overlook incorrect facts and figures that have no bearing on the premise of the story. But when the incorrect stuff is a) easily learned, and b) the sort of thing that makes the story fall apart completely if it was done correctly, I lose patience. And feel that I’ve had my intelligence insulted.

    I realize this is just my opinion, and doesn’t really matter in the great scheme of things, but there it is.

    To answer your question about why I bother to watch: my wife loves Hawaii Five-O. So on the night it’s on, if I want to spend time with her, I have to suck it up. :) The sacrifices we make, right?

    • dwsmith says:

      Got it and understood, Michael. Now the key for you is to not let that attitude slow down your writing in any way. Get your research done away from your writing time and that’s all my point is about. (grin)

  19. Understood, sir. Will do. :)

    Actually, this discussion has firmly cemented in my mind a big part of why I prefer to read science fiction and fantasy, vice other stuff. Scifi and Fantasy is not real, and in most cases can’t be. So I have a MUCH easier time suspending disbelief, and thus I have a lot more fun with it.

    It would be a lot easier if I wasn’t such a nerd.

  20. David Barron says:

    For a more concrete example, I sometimes write ‘magical romance’ set in Thailand, and sometimes characters speak in Thai or Lao. Just because I’m certain that everything they say is reasonably accurate Thai or Laos doesn’t mean I spent hours researching languages (or expect anybody to know whether it’s accurate, really). I just happen to speak reasonably accurate Thai and Lao and happen to live in Thailand where I can take a minute to say the couple of phrases contained in the story to a Thai person to make sure it makes sense. The same with the various details of ‘SE Asian mythology’ that make up the magical elements of the story.

    Thus-so with other details. If you happen to already know it at the time, go to town with the details. If you would have to get a second degree to even have a chance of getting it right, make it up. As Dean says, you’ll get it wrong anyways, so you might as well get it wrong on your own terms.

    Fiction is a choice between ‘write what you already know’ and ‘write what you don’t know’, not ‘write what you want to know (but obviously don’t)’.

    • dwsmith says:

      My best example of this sort of thing was a thriller I was writing with another author a few years back for Waterbrook, the Christian imprint of Random House. The book was to be set in Northern Thailand. And it had by the nature of the story, be setting heavy.

      While finishing another novel I found two travel guides on the area, one Fodor or some such thing. Found a few pictures and temperature listings, and then just stayed inside a character’s head when writing who had never seen the place and didn’t much like the weather. By staying firmly in a character’s head who had never been there, I made it feel alien and different. The reviews on the book all raved about the vivid setting. I doubt the reviewers had been there either. (grin)

  21. Phil Olynyk says:

    By coincidence (or not?), JDSawyer wrote yesterday on the same topic, but with a slightly different slant – I think he is saying that if something isn’t part of the story, it doesn’t matter too much. But if is germane to the story, at least look it up in Wikipedia – he’d probably say leave it as xxxxx, make a note to look it up, and fill it in on the polishing pass.
    But maybe he wouldn’t say all that – so go read the article yourself; it’s short and amusing, too.

  22. David Barron says:

    That’s pretty much what I intend to do when I write my Khartoum romance. Character trumps setting, and (tongue slightly in cheek) I figure if I can at least get the weather right, the reader will fill in the rest.

  23. Linda Jordan says:

    I think you can make the same statements about world building as you can about research. What a time suck. Whole universes and fantasy worlds get designed down to the exact shoe fastener while the story lies dormant and waiting. And most of those little details don’t get used in the story, because they’re just not that important and would slow the story down too much. I used to do that a lot when I started writing.
    These days I wing it a lot more. Mess around with world building while I’m writing something else, get just what I need to to write the story and then when I’m stuck, leave a blank or make something up quickly or figure it out during lunch. Lots of research is done during lunch.

  24. Beth Camp says:

    Thanks, Dean, for these helpful strategies. My writing session this morning was stopped cold as I tried to figure out what kind of underwear women wore in the early 19th Century. It’s not even germane to the story, but I couldn’t develop the scene without some sense of what undergarments they’d need. Now I know what to do. You have a nice site here AND some fine writing. Beth

  25. Dean, you say researching is not writing. If one defines writing only as “typing words into a word processor”, you are certainly right. But there is more to writing than that, and sometimes research pans out in ways we do not foresee.

    Exxample: I have done massive research on Wyatt Earp, who is a character in a series of detective novels set in San Francisco. I mean years of research, trips out of state, long discussions with researchers. Tonight over dinner, my husband discussed his current reading, a bio of Houdini. Something he said clicked, and in moments my mind had connected Harry Houdini in a performance in San Francisco to Wyatt Earp via their mutual friend, vaudeville legend Eddie Foy. Now I have a plot for a story, one that would not have come to mind had I not read about this obscure connection in my research. The research I did didn’t all go into one book but is now generating another. My point is that, while you are right in terms of time management and the danger of distraction, sometimes a little extra research pays off down the line.

    Or, as Gracie Slick said, “Feed your head.”

    • dwsmith says:

      Sarah, never once said that research was often good and necessary for fiction writers. But I did say it is not writing.

      I can’t begin to tell you how many writers I hear talk about research like they were actually typing. Yet had never set a word to type in a half year because of all the research they were doing to make sure they got everything right when they got around to typing, which most would never do. That’s what I was talking about. Those writers think research is writing. It is not. No matter how important is might be and valuable to new ideas.

      I agree research is valuable. I come up with all kinds of story ideas from research. It’s why Kris and I have an entire wing of our house (three major bedrooms sized) of nothing but nonfiction books for research. I like research.

      But it’s not writing. And that’s where I draw the line. And all I was saying.

      • dwsmith says:

        By the way, the most recent addition to Kris and my research library wing of our house is an entire run, from the very first issue in 1937, to the 1970s, of Life Magazine. Trust me, you want to know what something looks like with great pictures, just pull out a weekly copy of that magazine from the very moment you are writing about. 50 Issues per year. We are working on bagging and boarding all of them and getting them in order. The collection will take a LOT of running shelf space, but worth it for research.

        • Jo says:

          Such a magazine collection would be great as reprints on a CD or DVD especially if it include a searchable index into the subjects.

  26. Phil —

    Oddly enough, it was a coincidence–I was tickled to bits when I saw Dean had posted this revised chapter at roughly the same time.

    I’m one of those unfortunate souls with a real setting-richness mind, the kind that is precisely the prey for the cheat of counting research as writing. The Wikipedia rule is the compromise I made with myself about a year and a half ago to help me quickly find the balance point between authenticity and actually being able to produce–and, oddly, it was on the first piece I sold after I made that rule for myself that the word “verisimilitude” started popping up in my reviews (and, it’s when my productivity took its first of several major jumps in the last couple years).

    In case it helps anyone, the rule I made for myself is this: If a major plot point that’s rooted in the real world can be shown to be invented out of whole cloth (like, say, claiming that the Victorians achieved supersonic flight when you’re not writing an alternate history) with less than three clicks in wikipedia, a rethink is in order. If it takes more than three clicks, then 90%+ of the audience won’t give a damn, and it’s not worth sweating.

    As to how I apply that, well, I do research several projects ahead, and I *never* have a time when I’m just researching. I’m always writing something too–otherwise, I’d never leave the library. Research is like candy to me.

    Then, when I’m writing, when I hit technical, geographic, or historical details I don’t know off the top of my head, I put brackets around the key words in question and keep typing–takes less than a quarter second, and doesn’t disrupt my groove (I do this with stuff that I suspect might violate continuity, too). Then, once the story is done, as I’m doing the proof read, I take each of those points. If any one of them takes me more than four minutes to fact check, I simply don’t use that fact–I either cut it or substitute something that I know off the top of my head.

    And, yeah, if it doesn’t matter to the story (or to the nature of the story), I don’t worry about it. In those cases, I stay vague and let the reader’s imagination do the job–like Hitchcock demonstrated again and again, sometimes what you *think* you see is more important than what’s actually on the screen (or in the book).

    FWIW — and thanks for this one again, Dean. Research junkie that I am, I *love* this chapter.


  27. Only three bedrooms full of books? Piker.

    My grandmother had every issue of Life magazine in her attic. Spending whole summers reading them may have given me my taste for research. But whatever spins the propeller and gets a story started is good, I say.

    Enjoy that journey!

    • dwsmith says:

      Oh, Sarah, that’s just the nonfiction library, with shelves coming off the walls like library shelves. Nothing else in the rooms but books. Not even a chair to sit in. We live in a twelve bedroom home overlooking the Pacific (big enough that we seldom see each other when both working…grin) and there are books in every flipping room. One wing is just nonfiction for research. So hard to say I don’t research. (grin) But I never call it writing.

  28. camille says:

    I love using period magazines for research. And catalogs. I can’t afford to have my own library of them, but let’s not forget that a lot of them are online. I think Life actually has a library of their photos. (They’re sometimes featured images on the Google Images search page.)

    Project Gutenberg usually includes the images with periodicals, too. These are usually older, of course, and many are etchings and illustration rather than photos — but it’s a great source of look and attitude. (Check out Punch, in particular. Great illustrations, and such.)

  29. That’s why I write fantasy 😛 Less research.

  30. EF Kelley says:

    In fact, today I started thinking about the project to follow my current WIP and thought ‘I should probably do some research on this.’ Spent the afternoon writing on the current WIP, spent the evening cruising through Navajo culture/mysticism sites for the next one.

    And then I saw this! Ha! What great timing. :)

    I actually did a blog post about this some time back. Ah here it is:

    Ha! I even talk about polishing. Thanks (in large part) to Dean, I don’t even do that any more, instead just making two passes through to check for errors and continuity.

    The article that sparked my post is really excellent. The author was talking about efficiency in business rather than writing, but I could see myself having mimicked some of those habits in the past.

  31. I agree about the research thing. My first book involves robotics, but it’s a romance. So the robots are far, far in the background and I don’t get too technical. Just enough to be a more interesting setting than a publishing/writing/magazine/marketing firm for the workplace romance.

    One thing I will add is that I don’t leave a blank space. I will write like this:

    Johnathan picked up his phone to call [INSERT LAWYER’S NAME] and schedule and appointment. It was almost time to pay Uncle Sam, and the Hedis prototypes would keep him busy for the next two weeks.

    I like to use brackets and caps, and detail exactly the piece that I need. This makes it MUCH less likely that I will miss filling in a blank (which I did before with just leaving blank space). Then when I’m in the mood to research, not write, I just Crtl-F the [ symbol and get to work filling in the gaps.

  32. Writing is writing. Check.

    Research is research. Check.

    And yeah, never mistake one for the other. The people who are most conscientious about getting it right are exactly those who are dogged by perfectionism. (Count me in.) So I come back and re-read this article from time to time, just by way of reminder.

    There’s another face to the problem: let research be your muse. Throw your non-fiction obsessions into the cook pot by way of prompt, and see what story climbs back out again. That minimizes the research and gives you a story about something that interests you.

  33. Frank says:

    I wrote a story set at an archery contest. The exact rules, I made up. I have no idea if those rules were what a medieval archer would expect when going to the butts for a contest. But the rules worked for the story.

    However, I needed to research archery itself. I looked into stances, types of bows, crossbows vs. traditional bows, drawing the string, etc. When I sent it in, the editor wrote back, “How long have you been an archer? I’ve been doing it as a hobby for years, and this is spot on.”

    I’ve held a bow only a handful of times in my life. But when in seminary, I had to learn how to research quickly and separate the wheat from the chaff.

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