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Transcript for Episode 1.24

Writing Excuses Episode 24: Research

Key points: Do just enough research to get by. Be curious, but don’t overdo it, stick with a couple of key details, not everything you found. Think it through — after you do the research, what does your specific situation do to that? Don’t be afraid of Dr. Google and Wikipedia.

How much research do you do?

  • just enough to get by. [followed by interruptions and noise]
  • Dr. Google. Read, follow the links, fill your head with the backstory for settings.
  • for example, Howard recently spent considerable time looking into the infrastructure of New York City

How many hours a week do you spend on research?

  • three to four hours per week
  • novelists frontload a lot. You need to know a lot, and have notes about it.
  • Fantasy often gets accused of having the least research. It’s because we get stuff wrong. You can do a lot with smoke and mirrors, you don’t need to research.

Why do you research? What do you gain?

  • less likely to knock the reader out of the story with glaring errors. E.g. if wizards with fireballs are known, why do troops bunch up? To avoid simple problems, do the research, then think about how change would affect everything.
  • more accessibility and more believability from those who know more. I’ve never had a therapist [that explains a lot! . . . . how do you feel about that?]
  • readers notice, even if they can’t tell you why.
  • the fantasy horse is treated like a motorcycle. The hero pulls up to the inn, jumps off, and walks inside. The horse stands outside, saddled, without water or other care?
  • Also crossbows treated as sixshooters.

Everybody’s an expert on something. Someone will know more about it than you will, so it’s essential to learn to use smoke and mirrors.

  • characters who don’t know much about it either
  • switch the point of view before it gets too deep
  • in fantasy, especially epic fantasy, you don’t need as much specific in-depth detail as you do in science fiction
  • if you do it right though, it adds depth
  • gains credibility, puts the reader in the scene
  • a couple of good details is what you need

What happens if you have too much research, especially in the book?

  • too much research oozes in
  • resist putting it all in

Not encouraging bad storytelling, but pick your battles. Focus on the key bits that you need to know, not everything.

Pick something simple, explain the heck out of it, and something complex, and don’t explain it at all. This is the key to smoke and mirrors. The reader says you knew that about the simple thing, so you must know this, too, even though you’re glossing over it.

Final words

  • the weight of reading in the past forms a lot of your research. You should constantly raise your knowledge. Novelist needs to be a jack of all trades.
  • Wikipedia is not good for scholarly papers, but it’s great for this sort of research

Writing prompt: write a scene in which a character is performing an activity about which you know nothing. Pick an activity about which you know nothing, go to Wikipedia and read up on it, and then write the scene. [I know exactly what you’re thinking. I’m not going to say it. I’m not going to go there.]

Current Mood: citing
Current Music: Fore She Was Mama, Clay Walker