Writing Excuses 15.41: Researching the FCK Out Of Things, with Cory Doctorow
Key Points: When you don’t know the facts, tag it with FCK for later fact checking. Do layered research, and check later. Watch out for Wikipedia click holes! Texture detail or plot related? Use FCK for internal consistency checks. Beware research procrastination. How little research can you do? For locations, use the Internet. Use “modified” to get the reader to help fill in. One hard-core, 100% true detail can support a lot of vagueness. How much research do you need to do? It depends on how you cover it.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 41.
[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses, Researching the FCK Out Of Things, with Cory Doctorow.
[Piper] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Cory] And we’re not that smart.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Piper] I’m Piper.
[Howard] I’m wondering what FCK stands for.
[Cory] And I’m Cory.
[Mary Robinette] All right. So, how do you research things?
[Mary Robinette] A couple of us write things that are based in some form of reality, not Howard. I know, he’s making a face at me.
[Howard] Nonono, that’s totally fair. I’ve… Let me just say that I love the term FCK, which means fact check, and the idea that you can just be hammering away on a manuscript and realize I don’t know the facts here, and just say FCK and keep going.
[Mary Robinette] So this is a concept that I use a lot, which is I do layered research. The first thing is that when I am writing something, I tend to gravitate towards things that I am already excited about. So I tend to have a general knowledge of the thing that I am writing about. I will make a short thumbnail sketch of the thing. Then I do slightly more targeted research as I begin to drill into it, and then more targeted research. Then, as I’m writing, if I hit something I don’t know, I hit a squ… I just do a square bracket and throw in a descriptor of what is supposed to be there, and then keep going, like [And then the captain said jargon as he handled the thingie that you used to control a ship] and all of that’s in square brackets. Cory, you said you use FCK.
[Cory] Yeah. It’s an old journalism thing. There’s two useful journalism bits. One is TK for to come. That’s for a thing that you need to go out and get later. FCK is fact check. The Brooklyn Bridge, all 819 FCK feet of it, would be fact check. TK would be like if there’s a quote to, or a thing that you’re waiting to look up or what have you. I think, for me, the great benefit of it is not merely that it reminds me to go and look stuff up, it’s that it avoids the temptation to engage in what I call writing-related program activity.
[Cory] Which is writing adjacent Wikipedia click holes.
[Piper] I do that. Or I used to do that. Or I won’t do that after this podcast.
[Cory] It’s like, you’re… If you’re like me, and riven with imposter syndrome and self-doubt, as you work, there’s a part of your brain that’s just going, “You’re screwing this up. Just stop.” When you give it an excuse, too, like, go down the Wikipedia click hole, it is going to grab the tiller, and it is going to like take you so deep into that swamp… It was a hole, now it’s a swamp… That you will just never find your way out again. Or at least not until your next writing session. So, this is a way to keep going. I guess there are some exceptions where it comes to a… Where you really just can’t proceed unless you know an answer.
[Mary Robinette] I find that this method works great for me when it’s a texture detail. But if it’s plot level, then it’s a terrible idea. Because I have written scenes… I’m like, “What about this?” And have written scenes and built novels around something that was wrong, and the thing comes apart. I just recently critiqued a manuscript, and the person had not done their homework. On a plot level. It wasn’t the… Like, the details, that wasn’t the problem.
[Mary Robinette] It was the things that they had wrong affected the plot. So this is… I’m…
[Cory] I hear y’a.
[Mary Robinette] It’s…
[Piper] It’s another case of it depends.
[Cory] Well, okay. Let me try and square that circle. So, first of all, the other thing that it’s really good for is internal plot consistency. Like, if you can’t remember…
[Mary Robinette] Yes.
[Cory] Whether they still have the pen. You try to… If you write FCK, make sure they still have the pen. Then you can go back and back shadow your foreshadowing. But… The… For me, the research starts with not an idea, but with the world as it exists in the world. Because I write Science Fiction for the most part, and it’s mostly futuristic, mostly near future. I, like you, am non-consensually eyeball banged by headlines all day long. They make me anxious and sad. For the longest time, now 20 years, I have done this thing that sounds like Gollum with indigestion, I’ve been a blogger.
[Piper] I was waiting for you to do that.
[Cory] The thing that blogging, for me, does is it is a way to be reflective instead of reflexive about all the fragmentary ideas that cross my transom. What I do is I block out time every day, and I take all those things as they fly over my transom, and I make sense of them to the extent that I can. I talk about where they fit, how I’m thinking about them, and so on. It has this ancillary benefit that it becomes a thing that other people want to read that is separate from my novels, and makes them interested in my work, and so on. But I would do it if no one read it, first of all for my mental health. Right? Like, it is how I organize narratives about things that are going on in the world, and helps me feel like I have some mastery over it. But also, there’s a powerfully mnemonic element to gathering these things and explaining them for notional strangers that differs from a commonplace book. When you write in a commonplace book, you can cheat. Right? You can make these notes that when you go back to them, you have no idea what you meant. But for a notional stranger, you have to be more thoroughgoing. Then you end up with a subconscious that’s just kind of like a supersaturated solution of fragmentary story ideas that are banging together and they nucleated and they crystallize into often like semi full-blown novels and short stories and essays and speeches and whatnot. So now you’ve already done the research. Right? You’re already cruising along, the foundational premise, you already know about, because you chased it because it was in your feeds. Right? That’s where the story grew out of.
[Mary Robinette] That’s very much what I do. It’s like why did I write about space? Because I was already reading and thinking about space. Why did I write about Jane Austen era magic? Because I was already reading and thinking about Jane Austen era magic. I have done stuff that’s set in a period or a time or dealing with something where I’m like, “Oh, this would be really interesting,” and I have to chase it is I don’t know anything about it. There I find that I have to do more reading, but the reading is very much to give me that kind of foundational feel of it. It’s very organic. I often will read in parallel to writing whatever it is, because it’s still just continuing to feed and churn in my mind.
[Piper] I think when I was… Oh!
[Howard] I was going to tell a joke in Schlock Mercenary that involved drawing our solar system millions of years ago. I realized that the age of Saturn’s rings would determine whether or not I was going to draw them. I really liked this joke I was going to tell. I can’t remember it, which means…
[Cory] It wasn’t that funny.
[Howard] It really wasn’t that good. But I burnt two hours reading the research and realized they are probably young, but not enough people are convinced that I can get away with drawing Saturn without rings or with proto-rings without making the fans angry, and I don’t have the time for that crap. I don’t have the time for that crap was the result of two hours of research. But that is a thing that happens, and that was a case where I knew I can’t do this without doing the research upfront. There are lots of cases where I’m getting ready to draw a panel, and I realize I need reference art for this. Get Ref is the penciling that goes in that panel, and I set it aside until I got time to get the reference art.
[Piper] I think one of the dangers, though, that we look into… Because we’ve talked a lot about when it’s absolutely needed and absolutely a point, especially when it has to do with plot, or how the plot comes together. But some of the dangers, particularly for those of us who do have imposter syndrome, is that it becomes… Research becomes a form of procrastination, because you justify that you’re doing writerly things. Right? You’re doing writerly things. It’s to improve your book. It’s there to prove the veracity of your storyline, add to the plausibility, all the things. Therefore, you’ve spent hours procrastinating when you actually should be writing the thing. You have a whole bunch of facts that you have checked, but you have not written any further scenes or chapters in your book. You have to make a judgment call as to how important this is to your ultimate storyline.
[Howard] It’s the writer’s version of $10,000 worth of legit business expense lunches with people, which theoretically would contribute to the bottom line, but the bottom line is not supporting $10,000 worth of lunch.
[Mary Robinette] Exactly. I want to approach this from a different way, but let’s first pause and talk about our book of the week.
[Cory] Sure. I want to talk about Annalee Newitz latest book. It’s called The Future of Another Timeline. It’s a time travel story. It’s a world in which there are these great regoliths, these huge stone monuments, that if you hit them with mallets in the right way, you go back in time.
[Cory] If you’re lucky, there’s someone there who’s got mallets that can send you forward in time again. There are all these protocols, as you can imagine, and there’s historical researchers and people do stuff around it. But, men’s rights advocates are trying to end feminism. There’s a group of feminist time travelers who are trying to head them off at the pass.
[Cory] It’s built around the punk scene in Orange County in the 80s. Now, Annalee Newitz was a poke in Orange County in the 80s. You want to talk verisimilitude and bad… I want to say… Crappy dudes. That’s not the word I usually use. Terrible dudes in the punk scene in Orange County in 1980, boy, she’s got their number. They say write what you know, and Annalee Newitz knows what a time traveler… Time traveling feminist from the 1980s in the Orange County punk scene would be up to. They’re great books. They’re really fun. They called them… The secret cabal is called the Daughters of Harriet for the first African-American senator, Harriet Tubman. Boy, is it a lot of fun, and, like, it’s madcap in places. There’s chase scenes. It’s great.
[Piper] I kind of wonder what the mallets look like.
[Cory] Well, they’re diff… When you get very far back in time, they get very different, too.
[Mary Robinette] And you’ll have to read the book to find out. That book was…
[Cory] The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz.
[Howard] Which, as of this recording, isn’t out yet, but… As of this listening, has been out for almost a year. So…
[Howard] Your timeline…
[Cory] Time traveler.
[Howard] Your timeline has this book in its past.
[Cory] Although someone is coming back in time to stop me from promoting this feminist time travel novel.
[Mary Robinette] We will keep the mallet away.
[Mary Robinette] So the thing that I want to say is we keep talking about how much research do you want to do, but I think actually the question that most writers should ask is how little research can you do?
[Mary Robinette] so, like, if you’re doing location research, do you have to go there? How little research can you do you want to use a relocation in the real world? Opinions? I mean, it has not hurt the Dresden books.
[Cory] Right. I have a stupid writer trick that is not location based. So you talk about location, and then I want to get in a stupid writer trick.
[Piper] There’s never any stupid tricks. It’s just the trick.
[Cory] No, I mean like David Letterman’s sense. It’s delightful.
[Piper] So, I once talked about how much I enjoyed finding a location and soaking it in, to be able to add to my book. Like, I will literally walk around and be like, “I see a story,” and start writing it. But I also travel 475 to 80% of my time as part of my day job. Not everyone can travel that way. Not everyone has an expense account for that kind of thing. Also, not everyone wants to travel for various reasons. So, how do you research it? One of the answers to you is the fact that we have this wonderful thing called the Internet, and the Internet, particularly certain platforms like Google maps, actually allow you to not just check something out geographically, not just look at something from a sky level view, satellite map wise, but you can actually look at street-level things. Then you can even research further. There are YouTube videos out there, so you can hear what a place sounds like. One of the recent things that Mackey did with me was take me to a location which, again, we had the lucking us of the fact that we could go to this location. When I took video as reference, I recorded it with sound. Other things are, you write about the place you live in now, or you write about the place that you’re visiting now, you take advantage of that, and save that in notes for when you might use it in a future book. But mostly, I really like the fact that the Internet is there for that. You can actually call out. Like, I had a friend who was traveling to a place, and she took pictures for me, and she gave me her impressions of the feel of the place and the people that were there, and the taste of the water out of the tap, which was disgusting.
[Piper] Those were cool, like, things that you could capture and put in the book to make it feel like it is actually that thing.
[Cory] If you do have a yen to travel, though, it should be noted that any place you go to research a book, if you’re going to generate taxable income from it, becomes a tax deduction.
[Piper] Oh, yes.
[Cory] So, this is very nice. I’ve written a lot of fiction about scuba diving, as it turns out.
[Cory] The… My stupid writer trick I got from James McDonald. He is a gun person, and I am not a gun person. I’m a Canadian who’s naturalized British, and I know nothing about guns. But I’ll tell you his top tip was anytime you put a gun in your book, people are going to find errors. Because people who like guns like to find errors in the way that guns are treated literately. However, if you put the word modified before you insert the name of the gun, a modified Walter PPK, not only will they forgive you any errors that you’ve made, they will tie themselves in knots thinking of which modifications you had in mind to make that gun work. They will create elaborate theories. The further they have to reach to make that gun do what you need it to do, the more satisfied they will be with your amazing gun foo.
[Cory] And the cool gun modification you came up with to make that gun work. It is my favorite super writer trick. I think it applies to other things that people [inaudible]
[Mary Robinette] Yes.
[Howard] A modified Saturn five.
[Mary Robinette] Like, I have so many modified rockets in my… That is… Like, I have used a similar trick. My trick is to drop one piece of knowledge that is absolutely hard-core, completely 100% true, and then be vague about everything else. They assume that I’ve done my research.
[Cory] Yeah. It’s a Douglas Adams tell.
[Mary Robinette] Yes. Yeah.
[Piper] I will say that modified works for recipes, friends, so if you have food… Food reflecting your character building in your books, modified recipes, you have readers for life because they want that recipe.
[Cory] Yeah, software too. Just like, if you want to make your character like a bad ass super nerd, have them download the source code, modify it, and recompile it. Now it does anything!
[Mary Robinette] So these are handy ways. Basically, the answer to the question is, how little research do you need to do? Very little sometimes if you have a way to cover it. The… I think that we’re going to wrap it up here. There’s some other topics we could talk about in terms of research, but I feel like we’ve given you some good meaty tools to dig in with.
[Mary Robinette] So let’s go ahead and give them some homework assignment. Piper, I think you have that.
[Piper] I do. Actually, it has to do with my little tip. So, often we want to research by going to a place that will be our setting. So we want to go in person and get a feel for the place. But that’s not always feasible, due to cost, due to timing, what have you. Maybe it’s not even safe to go. So, go onto the Internet, friends, and research a place. Not just for the geographic location detail. But for the feel of the place. What it’s like for people walking in the streets or not. For what it looks like at street-level, or if there’s no streets at all, and even how it sounds. Bonus if you can get actual details about taste and scent from first-person accounts.
[Howard] You know what’s a fun way to find first-person accounts? Go to your location, Google your location, discord, Pokémon go…
[Howard] Find the Pokémon go community in that location. The things that they have to say about wandering around. So many fun facts.
[Cory] I thought you were going to say Yelp reviews.
[Piper] No. No. Ingress. Pokémon go. Harry Potter. All by the same company. All gathering all that data. Friends. Have fun with that.
[Mary Robinette] So, this has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write and research. And write.
[Cory] Can we take a moment to appreciate the sunset?
[Mary Robinette] We can.
[Howard] I’m facing the wrong direction, then, so I will play the part of the listener who didn’t get to see it.
[Mary Robinette] I’ll give you the word picture if you want, Howard.
[Mary Robinette] Beyond the reflections of my balcony window lies the smooth ocean that is wine dark. Above it, the rosy colored fingers of dusk creep across as the ocean undulates gently.
[Cory] There’s some trees out there, too.
[Mary Robinette] There are no trees.
[Cory] Yeah, there’s a little island out there.
[Mary Robinette] Oh, is there really?
[Piper] Land ho!
[Cory] Oh, no, sorry, it’s clouds. False horizon.
[Mary Robinette] But you didn’t know that, listeners, did you?
[Cory] The magic of radio.
[Howard] You’re out of excuses. Use the Internet to pretend to visit a place.
[Mary Robinette] Secretly, we’re in a basement.