The importance of research becomes clear when writing outside the stream of pure invention. In a way the fantasy specialist has it easiest because he or she can, in essence, invent everything. So long as those inventions are internally consistent, the story’s background detailing will work perfectly well. But what about other streams of fiction?
Research is most certainly important. Perhaps it is stretching a point to say that getting the details accurate can actively make or break or a piece but it doesn’t help your credibility if your reader comes across inaccuracies. Sometimes they can be quite trivial but still stick in folks’ craws, or at worst provide fodder for criticism perhaps out of all proportion to the scale of the error. At other times, the mistake is clearly the result of the writer not knowing the fine points of the field in which they are working.
An example comes to mind, the “Soldiers of Barabbas” pulp military adventure novels by Jack Hild (Gold Eagle, 1983 – 1989). There were 33 titles in the series and it was very obvious that Jack Hild himself wrote the first half of them, about sixteen if memory serves (he returned for a few other instalments which stood out among the ghost-written hack-jobs like a rose among weeds). The 18th title, Sakhalin Breakout, was very obviously ghost written, and the new hand on the pen was not just lacking Jack Hild’s literary flare and enthusiasm for subject, he lacked the technical knowledge of the general militaria of the times. At one point he had a short-duration high-speed interceptor deployed in the ground attack role and flying a long, long standing patrol over an area – exactly the opposite of what the aircraft type concerned was capable of. Maybe this only jumped off the page to someone who knew their aeroplanes, but the militaria fans of the day no doubt picked up the error. It’s worth noting, some of the ghost writers were so bad their English sounded like it was being written as a second language – one of the later novels I closed after reading the first two pages.
Fast forward thirty years… A recent research case of my own concerned the history of Japan. I had an idea for a rather exotic short and found myself delving into some bite-sized volumes of good repute, two Osprey titles by Stephen Turnbull. One was a concise history of the Samurai sword, placed in its broader context, while the other was a biography of Toyotomi Hideoshi, the great general of the 16th century who united Japan in an era of conquest likened to that of Napoleon in Europe. Having already read Willian de Lange’s excellent treatise, Famous Japanese Swordsmen of the Two Courts Period, and access to Jonathan Clements’ A Brief History of The Samurai, a New History of the Warrior Elite, I found I had a general grounding in the tide of Japanese medieval history, certainly good enough for me to select the era I felt best suited my material, and enough detail for me to depict the elements which should be encountered. Online searches further refined things when it came to the honourifics of the language and some featured elements of the Shinto religion. The story itself was swift to write and went off on submission to a forthcoming anthology – fingers are still crossed as I write this.
The research process was a great pleasure, and therein lies perhaps the greatest strength: if the subject matter is genuinely interesting to the writer then research is not a chore, there is no aspect of “wading through it,” but of discovering information which is not just useful in the sense of its utility to the project in hand but of intrinsic value in its own right. If all research could be this way, the writer’s task in firming up the background details, whether historical, technical or otherwise, would be no burden at all!
Cheers, Mike Adamson