In today’s Publetariat Dispatch, author and publishing pundit Alan Baxter addresses the need for research in all types of writing, not just historical fiction. Publetariat Editor’s note: strong language.
One of the things I like most about writing is the research it leads me to. I think of a story idea and start developing it, then discover I need to know more about something that’s relevant to the story. When I was writing MageSign, for example, I needed to have a good working knowledge of cults and their methods of indoctrination. I could have just made it all up, but it’s important to me to know that I’m getting things right. And I owe it to my readers to deliver something as factually correct and consistent as possible. There’s an authenticity to well-researched fiction. Equally, poorly researched fiction stands out as being pretty rubbish, even if a reader can’t quite put their finger on why. That’s the basis for my Write The Fight Right workshops, after all.
With the cults thing I was lucky in that my mother-in-law is a psychiatrist. She’s been exposed to all kinds of stuff in her line of work and was able to direct me to good quality resources on the subject. I read a lot, educated myself and hopefully wrote an engaging and authentic book that resonated with readers. Along the way, I greatly enjoyed the process, because I learned new things. Education is good, mm-kay.
Why am I bringing this up now? Well, I had a really good read partly spoiled by poor research. I’ve just read a novel by Tim Lebbon called Fallen. It’s a great read – a dark fantasy set in the world of Noreela. It’s a bold idea, got great characters, excellent writing and some really cool stuff happens (although I was really disappointed with the ending, which was a shame). I won’t give much away, except to say that the story follows two Voyagers, Ramus and Nomi, and their band of bodyguards. Ramus and Nomi travel and learn for the sake of expanding the knowledge of their nation. To the far south of their land is the Great Divide, a huge wall of rock that stretches from coast to coast and is lost in the clouds above. No one knows how high it is, what’s at the top (if it even has a top) or anything else. So, for reasons explored in interesting ways through the book, Ramus and Nomi set out to climb the Great Divide.
It is a good book and I enjoyed it for the most part. Other than the ending, which I won’t spoil, the other thing that really annoyed me was the climbing research. I don’t know how much experience Tim Lebbon has as a climber. Personally, I’ve only climbed a little bit. It’s a great pastime and one I’d like to do more. However, when I started reading the bit about the climb (which, as you can tell from my brief synopsis above, is a very large and integral part of the book) I had a shock. The characters, as they climbed, kept hammering crampons into the rock face to tie their ropes to for safety. Crampons? I has a confused. This is a crampon:
Crampons are things you strap to your boots to improve traction on snow and ice, especially for ice climbing. You can get walking versions too, for glacier walking and the like. Can you imagine hammering one of those into a rock face and tying a rope to it? You be pretty fucking dead, pretty fucking quick.
These days people use passive safety devices called nuts or hexes for securing their ropes, or more active devices like spring-loaded camming devices. In the old days, they would have just hammered iron spikes into the rock face, I imagine. I don’t know this for certain and would have to research it, but that wouldn’t be hard. Especially with things like Wikipedia and all the hobby forums out there.
Incidentally, even though Lebbon made that mistake, how does something like that get past an editor? Does no-one connected with that book know what a crampon is? Well, I guess that’s a stupid question. Obviously no-one did. And it really spoiled the read for me, because I do know what a crampon is and every time I read about a character hammering one into the rock the narrative became farcical and I ground my teeth and had to try to ignore it and push on regardless.
I’m glad I did because, like I said, it is a good book, ending notwithstanding. Except for the bloody crampon thing. There was another thing I read once, written by an American, where a character passed briefly through England and stopped in a shop. He was charged in Euros. They don’t use Euros in Britain – still the good old pound sterling. It’s a small thing that’s really annoying because it makes the author look dumb and makes the reader question everything else included in the book. If a writer can’t tell the difference between a shoe accessory and a safety device, can I trust him or her on anything else? Unless, of course, I’m really missing something vital and there’s another definition of crampon that I’m not aware of and couldn’t find when I checked.
Even in fantasy and other forms of speculative fiction, it’s really important to get the details right. Internal consistency is essential and building your speculative world in a framework of believable and accurate detail is the only way that suspension of disbelief will survive. We all make mistakes, I’m sure. I bet there are some things in my books that make certain people grind their teeth in frustration. I really hope there aren’t, but I’m not so egotistical to think that I’ve got everything exactly right. But I do try to get things right, I research deeply and the bonus is that I really enjoy that research.
We’re always told to write what we know. Which is a load of bollocks, of course, because we’d run out of things pretty quickly. But we can learn about stuff and then write about it. It’s important that we do, because the process is good fun and it makes us better writers and more informed people. Then we write better books and stories.
Perhaps this whole post is easily summed up thus: When you’re writing, make sure you know the difference between a spiky shoe accessory and an iron spike.