Writing Excuses Episode 24: Research

How much research do you do? Howard’s answer: “Just enough to get by.” In this podcast we talk about why we research, how we research, and when we feel like we’ve researched enough. We also discuss hiding a lack of knowledge, and finding ways to get by without doing truly exhaustive research. Listen closely and you’ll learn why you’ll never be able to know enough, why the epic fantasy horse is a lot like a motorcycle, and whether or not one of us really needs therapy.

This week’s Writing Excuses Book of the Week: Warbreaker, by Brandon Sanderson


Warbreaker, by Brandon Sanderson

40 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Episode 24: Research”

  1. Regarding research, I have a large library of my own, most of it fiction. I’ve been collecting since I was a kid, anyway, does this also count toward research? But only in the sense that what I’m reading is the culmination of the research done by others.

    Not, I repeat, Not, plagiarism.

    However, if you read 20 different books with horses in them you eventually can figure out who knew what they were talking about and how did not. And yes, I’ve seen and been on a horse.

    On the other hand, is it not a good idea to rely on this kind of knowledge?

  2. Reading fiction by other authors is research, yes. But for some kinds of research you really need to go straight to non-fiction sources and grab stuff “straight from the horse’s mouth,” as it were.

    It depends in part upon how extensively you plan to use a particular detail. I suspect that the epic fantasy “horse-as-motorcycle” evolved out of lots of people doing research by reading fiction in which the horses were not realistically depicted.

  3. Who doesn’t love to relax at the end of the day by doing some embalming. My question is when creating a world for your story if you change something from the way our world normally functions(i.e. lunar cycles, hours in the day, season length, stuff like that) should you try to research why and how that thing is different and as part of the story explain it or do you leave it partly unexplained and hope the reader doesn’t really pick it out?
    Also is it ever alright to use “wizard did it ” as an excuse?

  4. Regarding the wikipedia research, you have to figure that wikipedia is two things. First, its accuracy is in a quantum state. Wikipedia as a whole may be generally accurate, but any *specific* article is still likely to be wrong at the time you read it…. and second, you have to bear in mind who maintains it. It’s mostly maintained by people who have nothing better to do. This doesn’t lend itself towards those maintainers being people who have practical knowledge. If you want to get armchair analysis of something, it’s going to have lots… if you want to get articles written by people who go and do that, wikipedia probably isn’t the place to go.
    (However, the sources listed at the bottom of each wikipedia article can be a great starting place for research. Never trust the wiki- but examine each source on its own merits)

    Which leads to my real comment, I guess. What really, *really* throws me out of a story and will often cause me to shelve a book and not buy from an author again, is if the author writes as if they know what they’re talking about… and they get it wrong. Whether they did bad research, or they got good information that they interpreted wrong, it just absolutely kills the scene for me. Sometimes even the whole book, depending on how important that scene was.

    David Weber is an example of that- he likes japanese swords. They’re purdy. We get that. However, kendo is not a particularly effective fencing style for, well, any of the worlds he’s put it in. When he writes about a character demolishing another- or even a series of guys- in a hurricane of steel? Fantastic. When he writes about each painful little stroke? Awful. Terrible. Horrible. Kendo concentrates a very specific type of movement, and on striking a series of points- nine, if I recall correctly. If Weber tell me that this guy performs stroke X, I know it’s going to land at this point on the target’s body, and guess what? He’s wearing a piece of angled armor *right* there, where that stroke hit. The author already told us the opponent was wearing that. He got it wrong, and his protagonist should be dead, unless he’s fighting a five-year-old with a Popsicle stick. And if the protagonist should be dead, why am I still reading the book? (Morbid fascination, generally)

    I guess it comes back to the whole… armchair analysis. And like you said in the podcast- everyone is an expert in something. I’m not a fencing expert. I’m a passionate devotee to armor of all types, and understanding armor lead to understanding how it works and why and what it is- and isn’t- going to protect against. An author who writes about armor and gets it wrong is going to bug me, but I can live with it. An author who hangs a *plot point* on his misunderstanding is going to break the story for me. I guess what it comes down to is that an author *needs* to do more than just a cursory analysis of anything that they hang a major turn of events on. That’s a time to grab one of Howard’s experts that he connives with and say, “hey, I’m writing this scene… does it sound believable?”
    A person with practical experience in the field will provide a much more complete and correct understanding than just a collection of facts and information that the author might find.

  5. Since I’m writing supernatural thrillers with a decidedly religious tone, along with standard research, I have two specific readers I uses as filters: one is a Roman Catholic doctoral student, the other is a devoted Evangelical housewife.

    Since I’m not Catholic, my one friend is more than happy to point out my biases and clichés. Prior to her assistance, my one major character was portrayed much like your cheesy Catholic priest with a walk on part in a Hollywood movie. Not that this is an excuse, but my views on Catholicism was largely based on movie and TV portrayals – not exactly the best source materials!

    My other friend is great for giving me a reading from an extreme point of view, and then responding with a superficial or ‘gut’ reaction to the subjects (that is not a critique of Evangelicals, but more of a foible of this individual). Having to address her concerns has forced me to find better justifications for why certain events happen, and thereby strengthening my stories.

    Also, I’ve consciously stopped reading other fiction with a similar theme to what I’m working on. Dan Brown was an innovator in the field of religious conspiracy murder mysteries, but his followers have created a new genre of clichés. Now there is a glut of ‘me too’ novels that have not improved the genre. I have instead decided to stick to non-fiction books involving these subjects.

  6. If you guys are going to keep being this funny, I ‘m not going to be able to listen to at work (with headphones) any more.

    But that’s a sacrifice that would probably be worth it, so keep it up!

  7. By the way:

    Dear whoever bought me the bacon wallet and bacon air freshener, thank you both from the bottom of my heart. The wallet has a nearly 90% rate of completely freaking people out, and the air freshener produces one of the most profoundly horrible smells I have ever encountered. The utility of an item like that…well, let’s just say that I have a number of devious plans in mind.

    You’re both wonderful! Thank you!

  8. Have I ever mentioned that you guys are hilarious?

    I think what Brandon said about picking your fights is pretty much key; no sense in spending a whole lot of time researching something that you’re not going to put in, and it’s a lot easier to not show off all that unnecessary research you did if you didn’t actually do it. (Dan Brown, this is for you.)

    I think the hardest thing about research is knowing -where- you can get away with the smoke and mirrors and where you cannot, or where that extra bit of research that you don’t really “need” will enhance the scene you’re writing. Many a time I’ve read a scene about something that stood pretty well on its own, but there was just an added detail or two in there that showed that the author had really done their research. Not only does it show the care that went into the work, but knowing those tiny little things that I didn’t know before really enhance the scene. The trick of course is knowing when it’ll help and when it won’t.

    I’ve never seen the horse-as-motorcycle before (that I can recall), but people do sometimes get things wrong in fantasy. It’s not the end of the world – usually – but it can be rather annoying.

    For some well-researched fantasy books check out Guy Gavriel Kay. All of his books tend to be set within a specific time and place – the Byzantine Empire, medeival Spain, Italy, France… The research he does really shows in the details that he gives you about whatever culture his book is “set” in, and even just in the ambience. That’s another important point, I think – even when whatever research you’ve done isn’t explicitly stated in your book, it shows. Fear not, your readers will reap the benefit of your hard work!

    …Or something.

    The other thing about Kay is that he doesn’t just do general research on cultures. He’ll pick something specific (though not necessarily simple), something important to that culture and to the story he’s telling, and as Howard says, “explain the heck out of it”. Some of the most memorable ones are his physician and mosaicist characters who really know their stuff – as he does – and the chariot races in the Sarantine Mosaic are wonderfully detailed and still absolutely riveting.

    I think Kay’s work is a good example of how to do research well. His books lean -very- heavily on research, but it’s never too much. It contributes to the story he’s telling. And he gets things right. And it’s so. Cool.

  9. Dear Dan,

    I guess you haven’t read the embarrassing email that I sent to the podcast email address yet or you would know that all your bacon (so far) is from me. For the first 48 hours after I sent it, I was convinced you had decided I was a crazy stalker fangirl and were using me as a psycho character sketch for your next book.

    I’m glad you liked the wallet and the air freshener. I have also bought you bandaids. So you will have to revise your devious plans to involve all three.

    To everyone else: Step up and buy Dan bacon! I can’t believe that I’m the only one who has so far!

    As for today’s podcast, I *loved* getting it on Sunday, it made my Monday morning commute far more exciting.

    I wonder about research on dialogue for period pieces. I’m personally having a hard time with something I’m working on (horror/fantasy) set in late nineteenth century East London. I’m worried I’ll never get the dialogue right, but I don’t know how far to take the research. Maybe dialogue is a different topic.

    (I want a horror genre podcast!)


  10. Dear Brandon,

    I also think you did plenty of research on metals for your Mistborn series. Duralumin and electrum aren’t exactly metals you think up without doing some deep research. Speaking for all Mistborn fans everywhere, we appreciate your research on the subject on creating a deep magic system!

  11. Dear Eliyanna,

    I guess that explains why the same name was on every inventory slip that comes in. And yes, I just got the bandaids, and there is a FREE TOY inside! Actually two: tiny plastic pigs, almost (but not quite) the right size and shape to play Pig Mania. As for your email, all of those go straight to Brandon, who reviews them for potential podcast topics and then, apparently, throws them away. Or perhaps he’s saving this one, keeping it all to himself, and pretending that you’re really sending HIM bacon. I don’t know. Either way, I’m happy to think of you as a crazy stalker fangirl, provided you don’t at some point kill me and hang me in a smokehouse to combine, in grotesque yet poetic fashion, your love for Writing Excuses with your love for bacon.

    Also: we just recorded the first of what I hope are many horror podcasts. Expect them to arrive shortly.

  12. Eliyanna,

    Do you have any linguist friends?

    And, before you ask Question #2: “So, how many languages do you speak?”, I mean a person with a college degree in linguistics, the science of language. If you know anyone with such a degree, they may well have taken some historical-comparetive classes, including History of the English Language. They could help you put something together.

    Alternatively, I suggest reading Sherlock Holmes and watching any and every BBC production of a Charles Dickens novel. Sherlock Holmes is good for seeing how upper-class period British English looks on the printed page, and BBC productions are great for getting a sense of the spectrum of class dialects. You might want to start with “Our Mutual Friend,” because part of its plot revolves around class dynamics, and you can bet that the BBC did its research!

    (In case you were wondering, Question #1 is “So, what do you DO with a degree in linguistics?” No matter what the answer is to both quesitons, the askers invariably smile and nod).

  13. Thanks for the podcasts. Keep them coming. Here is some useful stuff for other would be authors out there:

    Writing Prompt: Take a boring movie you have seen and make a weird twist ending for it instead of the boring ending. Then make an even more unexpected twist ending as an alternative ending.

    Writing prompt: Write down the details of a recent dream you have had. Take a title of a story you know nothing about from the Anthology website and write a scene which to me evokes the feeling of the title. Try to incorporate elements of the dream described above.

    Here is the link if you don’t already have it.

    Writing Prompt: Make a list of things NOT TO DO in a horror movie. Make a list of things TO DO in a horror movie that most characters usually do not do. Base it on the movies you have seen. Now use that to write an intelligent horror story.

  14. Speaking of good researchers, Michael Crichton, is great. Very, very detailed, in all his works.

    Speaking of which, does anyone know of any post-apocalyptic vampire books?

  15. Oh my god! Dan talked to me! Eeeeeeeek!

    (ahem.) I am so glad there is a free toy in the bandaid box. That makes my day. No idea what ‘Pigmania’ is, but you go girl! Great news about the horror genre podcast, I am very excited. Thank you!

    @Chivalrybean: Thank you muchly for the tip about pseudopod; I’ve done very little work at the office today but listened to many great short stories!

    @Jen: One of my very best friends has a degree in… linguistics! Great idea, thank you. And I will try your other suggestions too.

    @Jovaskig: For your last writing prompt, Strange Horizons has a really great (and I think amusing) list of plots they see way too often as part of their Submissions Guidelines section “What We Want and What We Don’t Want” http://www.strangehorizons.com/guidelines/fiction-common.shtm

  16. @Eliyann. Thanks for that link. The site is a good resource on what to do and more important what NOT to do when writing. The particular link you gave had a 404 error but I typed in strange horzons in the browser and found the guidlines readily enough. Also they have their short fiction stories accessible online for free. The titles alone for them are quite thought provoking.

    Hopefully this link will work

    Here are a few more writing prompts.

    Writing Prompt: Write a children’s bedtime story that was a favorite of your main character when he/she was a child. Have a scene where the adult character reflects on hidden lessons in the story that they were ignorant of as a child.

    Writing Prompt: Describe a scene where a character’s hat starts to talk to the character in a rather amusing way.

    Writing Prompt: Describe a scene where a main character runs naked through a temple in the midst of an important religious ceremony. Also determine what is motivating the character to this. Describe the reactions of others.

    Writing Prompt: Describe an encounter between your main character and a conspiracy theorist. The conspiracy theorist wishes to share vital information with the main character and is hiding under the main character’s bed.

    Also check out the site Gutenberg. Source of many public domain works that can be mined for ideas or interesting characters.


  17. Actually I haven’t gone through the WE e-mail for 2 months (just did it tonight) so you’ll have to forgive any late replies from us if you’ve been expecting one.

  18. This podcast was great. These resonated with me:

    – choose your battles
    – story comes first
    – just enough to get by
    – belief is critical to a reader

    However, the general feeling conveyed that epic fantasy is some loosey-goosey free-for-all clanged like a metal garbage can.

    It’s simply not accurate.

    As with many things in writing there is a continuum of approaches. You have a great many authors who take the time to get some basic details right on horses, armor, ships, farming, etc. And then you have authors who do very little research. But this continuum exists within ALL genres. You’ve got people like James Michener on one end who practically gives you a history lesson in his books. And then you’ve got folks like James Patterson who deliver a rollicking thriller, but don’t go into techno depth like, say, Tom Clancy.

    In fantasy, you have Orson Card, L.E. Modesitt, and Patrick Rothfuss who have taken the time to get details right on a great many subjects. And it shows in their work. They’re not practioner experts on all the subjects. But they research enough to use details that convince a reader to trust them. Judson Roberts is another. His knowledge of Viking culture, bows, etc. is amazing. Yet his novels focus on story.There are many others who do the same.

    So I think it’s an inaccurate description to say that epic fantasy has different rules for believability.

    I think the issue and opportunity for epic fantasy is that it usually features settings where very few readers have much expertise. There are far more readers expert in auto mechanics, say, than horse riding. Far more readers who will spot your computer hardware howlers than can spot your sword mistakes. If only because the rural, low-tech setting of most epic fantasy is so far removed from the time and place of most readers who live in high-tech cities and burbs. But it’s the same for the writer, because most fantasy writers have little experience with it either.

  19. Ben, my recommendation is to never rely on “research” that shows up in fiction by other writers because those other writers might have been making it up or performing some smoke and mirror show. Take the time on the topics that are your “battlegrounds” to get a bit of info under your belt.

    Here are the basic sources I’ve found helpful

    – juveniles on a topic: lots of pictures and a good overview of the topic. I’ve found Dave Wolverton’s advice to start here to be excellent.
    – more advanced texts
    – practicioners
    – trying it myself

    The wonderful thing about research is that it gives you loads of story ideas and options. One of Scott Card’s assignments in his bootcamp is to go to the library and get a story idea by researching something you don’t know anything about. It works.

    Researching presents fabulous non-cliche choices for you to use in your story, telling details, impossible to imagine incidents and obstacles. All of which have a tendency to take your story into directions you never imagined it might. And if your story surprises you, it’s going to surprise many readers.

    If you’ve taken some time to get a few basics of medieval battle, for instance (because it’s a topic important for the current project), then you know that the leather on the hoardings on the castle was sometimes doused in urine. You’ll know why and be able to recreate that environment in a way impossible by someone who hasn’t done some basic reading. You’ll know that your character who is not dead on the battlefield, lying in his armor, unable to get up, is desperately hoping someone comes to help him because the night is falling and the boys with the dirks are moving among the fallen, shoving their weapons into the eye slits or other vulnerable areas of your armor to finish guys like you off.

    Of course, the guys are right. Research can become a Frankestein’s monster and ruin your production AND story. But there are ways around that. See Steven King’s chapter on research in ON WRITING (p227) for what he does to overcome that.

  20. John? Since some of us don’t have easy access to a copy of the book or English-language libraries, is there a chance that you could summarize Steven King’s advice instead of just teasing us with it? Thanks.

  21. I”ve got to go with Mr. Brown on this one: fantasy can be very accurate. Katherine Kurtz is well know for her meticulous details.

    Mr. Barker: Makes me wonder where you are at that you don’t have English-language libraries…? Just curious!

  22. I didn’t get the feeling anyone was saying that epic fantasy is loosey goosey, just that you can get away with more because of the expectations of the market (readers).

    But Brandon spent some time on a really concrete example of meticulous research in epic fantasy. As scene from a Wheel of Time book by Robert Jordan’s where Perrin pauses from being a hero to make something in a blacksmith’s shop. I went back and read it after the podcast because I always loved the scene and Brandon describing it brought it back for me the way hearing a snippet of a song on a radio does (gotta play the whole thing to get it out of your mind!). Anyway, there was tons of research done to get that scene right and that’s why it was raised as an epic fantasy example.

  23. Eliyanna,

    You’re right, Brandon did indicate there were people who did do research. I guess it was the comments in the beginning I was focusing on that seemed to color the discussion of epic fantasy thereafter. Research is a marvelous and important tool for story. I just got the general feeling that epic fantasy writers could and should avoid it.


    King’s key points are as follows:

    1. “I think story belongs in front, but some research is inevitable; you shirk it at your peril.”

    2. “I knew absoluetly zilch about the Pennsylvania State Police, for one thing–but I didn’t let any of that bother me. I simply made up all the stuff I didn’t know. I could do that because I was writing with the door shut–writing only for myself and the Idea Reader in my mind.

    …but I eventually hope and expect to spend a couple of weeks in western Pennsylvania, where I’ve been given conditional permission to do some ridealongs with the State Police

    …Once I’ve done that, I should be able to correct the worst of my howleers and add some really nice detail work.

    Not much, though: research is back story, and the key word in back story is back. The tale I have to tell in Buick Eight has to do with monsters and secrets. It is not a story about police procedure in western Pennsylvania. What I’m looking for is nothing but a touch of verisimilitude”

    There’s more. A lot of interesting insight into his process. It appears if he can’t do the smoke and mirrors as Brandon suggested, then he makes sure he does the research.

  24. Karl: Call me Mike, Mr. Barker makes me wonder what I did wrong. I live in Japan, near Nara. Thanks, John. Interesting thought that when the smoke and mirrors get thin, that’s where you do the touches of research — or Brandon’s key battles. Also a good reminder to focus on what’s important for this book or story. It is easy to get lost doing research and forget to keep the goal in mind. Heck, research can be fun.

  25. @Ben : Post-apocalyptic vampire books? The classic has to be Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend”, yes, the book the Will Smith movie was based on. As have two other movies before it: “Omega Man” with Charleton Heston and “The Last Man on Earth” with Vincent Price.

    Mind, since those vampires are biologically explained rather than the supernatural sort, it may not be quite what you’re looking for. That’s not an area I focus on — I’m more an SF fan (go Schlock Mercenaries!) — so I’m not aware of any others.

    When you think about it, though, an apocalypse is going to severely impact the number of vampires around (unless it’s something like Matheson’s plague) due to the predator-prey relationship and the crash in the prey population. And there might be a story in that. (Help yourself – I’ve got too much on my plate right now.)

    – Alastair

  26. Jordan was pretty good at horses. They get tired, they need lots of tending.

    I remember a scene New Spring where the character Lan does a tactical march with horses and paces them by having the soldiers spend time on foot and changing speeds. It was pretty casual, but oddly, as someone who has never ridden a horse, I never really thought about how a long march involving horses would be done and the logistics.

    It was amazing.

  27. Eliyanna, looks like you and I make at least two fangirls here! For a while I thought I was the only one, but I am relieved to see you, too, share my fangirlish tendencies. Woot and hooray for buying Dan bacon! *does a silly fangirl dance* Hope my stuff gets to you soon, Dan. Also, for Howard and Brandon, I’m a fan of you, too! Rest assured that had you guys asked for bacon or any other unusual foodstuffs-themed products, I’d have pitched in.

    ps. Is there a release date for “I Am Not a Serial Killer” yet?

  28. Here’s the current, tentative schedule:

    March ’09: Book 1 comes out in the UK
    Oct ’09: Book 1 comes out on Germany
    April ’10: Book 1 comes out in the US

    This could change, but it’s not likely to get any quicker than that. The good news is that the books will come out very quickly in the US–about 6 months apart. So you’ll have a big wait for the first one, but very little wait for the others. Though of course it will SEEM like forever, because you’ll be desperate for more.

  29. How would you go about researching for military fiction if you never been in the military. Would people in the military been in such plentiful supply I could have them to refer to?

    Two responses I often get really really tired of is “You can write military fiction if you don’t know basic facts, or join the military.” Or “I don’t ever want to see you even think about joining the military, blah blah blah.”

    Well duh! That’s why I’m asking for information from someone in the military or consulting a tactics manual.

    But a large part of it is I don’t know what information is classified and what not, making research largely difficult!

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