Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The Rabbit Hole Seduction

                                     by Janis Patterson

No matter what we write, we’ve all been there. We’re writing along happily, the scene is working, the tension is building, our characters are behaving the way we want them to for once and - boom! - suddenly you need a tiny little fact without which nothing works.

Sometimes you can skip over it and finish the scene, vowing to go back and fact-check later (and sometimes you forget, for which fans will inevitably ding you) but often if the action is to proceed as you want it to you need an answer, as it might change the action.

In a way research was simpler before the internet. A trip to the library or the encyclopaedia if you were fortunate enough to own one, or a phone call to some authority, and you felt safe. You had done your due diligence and could feel fairly secure that you knew more about whatever it was than the majority of readers.

It’s different nowadays. Everyone has access to the internet, and let’s face it, a lot of information on the internet is confusing, contradictory and sometimes just plain not true. What’s a curious writer to do?

Research, research and more research. Some things are pretty immutable and easy to find out - the date of a battle, for example, or the reaction between two common chemicals. It gets a bit dicey, however, when you get into more esoteric stuff, for example, when did metal-spring hoop skirts become indispensable to ladies’ fashions? It’s fairly easy to find out the date of their first release (England, 1855 is the best date I can find) but when did they cross the pond to become available to Southern belles? What was a common recipe for home-made ink during the 1860s? And my own personal bête noir, did the 1916 Jordan Sport Marine automobile have a self-starter or were they only available with the old-fashioned and very dangerous crank? (Aeons of research have never yielded a definitive answer, so like my betters I have taken refuge in weasel words, saying that my heroine’s machine is an ‘experimental model.’ However, once the book is released I fatalistically await some reader to excoriate me for not having the correct answer. Sigh.)

I am beginning to appreciate why so many writers are now choosing to do urban fantasy, pure fantasy, science fiction, etc. Their world, their rules.

There are two main problems with research - one is that it takes time from writing, but this can be countered with the absolute necessity for at least believable accuracy. And yes, accuracy is important. I point to a Regency romance in a contest I once judged where the hero reaches into his pocket and pulls out a fountain pen, which although primitive ones were first patented in the 1830s were not commercially available until the 1850s, some thirty years after the Regency. When I counted this faux pas against the writer that absolutely furious young woman wrote me back, demanding to know why, especially since it was an old fashioned pen and who would know the difference anyway? Double sigh.

The second problem with research is its seductivity. You flip over to the internet to find out the date (say) whalebone was first used in corsets or the chemical formula for gunpowder and three hours later you are engrossed in reading the life cycle of the water nymph (dragonfly larvae) without really knowing how you got there, since neither dragonflies nor nymphs (insect or mythological) have anything to do with your story. Seductive, indeed!

Unfortunately, there is no cure that I know of for such a predilection to wander off into the arcane pathways of interlocking knowledge. After years of trying to discipline myself I have given up and allowed my mind to dive down the rabbit hole and follow the seductive lure of unknown fields. At least, for a while. You never know when you might find a nugget of knowledge that will enhance your story, or even give you a new one. (Yeah, like we really need new story ideas to add to the 200+ year stockpile we already have, right?) Besides, it’s inevitable. There is just too much fascinating information out there. We’re doomed.

(And I apologize for any weirdnesses in formatting - this new Blogger upload interface and I are not getting along well together! I don't see why companies insist on changing things for the worse!)


Morgan Mandel said...

I'm really not big on research, so I only do what's necessary. I'm not lured into continuing further with the subject and just happy to get an answer and proceed with my book.

I know there are others who really enjoy the research process, but I'm not one of them. lol

Gracie C. McKeever said...

Great blog! You hit the nails on the heads, each and every one. I love research and do get swallowed up for hours on end, even for short stories (I watched more videos and read more articles about wreck dives for my latest horror short, I feel like a certified diver, LOL). Thanks for this!

Alina K. Field said...

In my first Regency I had my heroine reach for a box of matches. My editor didn't catch the anachronism, but somehow, fortunately, I did, before the book was published. Now I'm fanatical about it, but "you don't know what you don't know" is such a terrible thing, lol!

authorlindathorne said...

Loved this. Interesting. I do agree with you on the new updated website. I liked the other more, but this happens where I work too. We finally learn how to do an electronic process and someone comes a long to to add bells and whistles we don't need.

Marquete Williams said...

Wonderful and interesting blog! Thank you!

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Yep, research can do that. I've been stumbling around on the new Blogger too.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Research can be a huge sinkhole. The part I find most unsettling is the changes that happen over time. If I begin a story about a character who sails one type of boat, set it aside and pick it up later, the boat design may have changed and I have to do the research again. Cell phones are another example of changing technology. And if I make a mistake, I'll certainly hear about it. But I like my work to be accurate. It's a challenge.