Monday, October 10, 2011

Details Matter: Do Your Research!

When I first became involved with the writing community, one thing I heard a couple times that stuck with me was that your details should be accurate when you're writing. Whether you're writing historical non-fiction or a fantasy novel set on a different planet, it is important that you get anything "real" correct, such as elements of the setting. People will notice if you get things wrong, no matter how minor you might think that specific thing.

For example, if you're writing a book set in Colorado Springs, you research wildlife before you mention seeing a grizzly bear in your book. We don't have grizzlies. We have other types of bears. People who live here will notice, as will others who have been here, or who study grizzlies, or who have any interest in wildlife in the west, so on and so forth. There will always be someone who notices.

People want to get lost in a book or movie, but when some minute detail catches their attention for being inaccurate, it can drag them out of it and ruin the experience. Even if the writing is phenomenal, something minor can rip a person right out of the story. Consider something like a cell phone being pulled out in a movie set in the 50's. That's an extreme sort of example, but would it catch your attention? Would it remove you from that suspension of disbelief that caused you to be absorbed in the story being told? Almost certainly! In fact, if you look at, many of the films have a section dedicated to goofs people noticed.

It doesn't take long to look up little things like native wildlife, local weather, state/city government, etc. Technology has even made it possible to see a street corner or storefront via satellite. You just have to go on the internet and you can see an entire neighborhood, zooming around to look at the houses, the lawns, the types of trees.

Historical novels are trickier, of course, but if you go into historical fiction or non-fiction, you likely go in fully prepared to do the research. One of the examples I first heard was from local author M.J. Brett, who taught before she became a writer. Her class was reading a novel that was set back during WWII, and a local area was detailed. This book had a couple driving through a part of town that would have been rubble on the day they went through it, thanks to bombing. These kids caught it and ridiculed the book; it ruined the entire story for them, made it so they couldn't take the rest of it seriously. Such a small detail, though probably not the easiest thing to find.

I'm not saying it's easy to do this research, but it is important. If you find yourself questioning something, it's best to look it up. Chances are, if it strikes you as wrong, someone else will respond in the same way.

By the way, I looked up London bombings in WWII to be sure I was talking about the right time frame (wouldn't THAT be embarrassing, considering the topic), and there are old newsreels of the bombings, which was interesting, so I thought I'd pass one along: NEWS REEL.

Is there a book or movie that has been ruined for you due to a botched detail?

May you find your Muse.


  1. I once went to a seminar, where the published author told us it was okay to fudge things. Not!

    Thanks for posting this b/c the newbies need to know this.

  2. Growing up in Southern California, it always bugs the heck out of me when movie-makers "fudge" facts about the area--like that Hollywood is next to the ocean or that you can get from one end of town to the other in a few minutes. Ha!

  3. This is so true. I read a book that had pop culture references too recent for its mid-1990s setting. It bugged me so much, I couldn't read it. The smallest detail matters, because there are readers out there that will notice the errors.

  4. not really i read alot of non fiction so small details that are not correct dont really bother me i just over look it and continue reading

  5. Research def counts. I find it's like editing for grammar. Your reader will forgive a couple mistakes, but overall it'll detract from the story if you're off.

  6. I've heard myself say things like, "That's crap." But I don't recall anything being ruined for me.

    I will say that it's much better not to have your readers pulled out.

  7. I have to say that I have a huge issue with historical (in)accuracy, especially in movies. I hate (HATE) the movie Gladiator for that reason. The fact that they use an actual, historical emperor and, then, change history with the ending of the movie drives me crazy. Based on the Oscar and amount of money the movie made, I'd have to say that, in general, people really don't care about the details, but that kind of thing defies my ideals about what's okay.

    On another note, when I was writing The House on the Corner, I used google maps quite a bit to get locations and names correct that I couldn't quite remember (even if I didn't use the specific names in the book).

  8. I do strongly believe in doing research, before you say something happened in a location. I'll admit, most of my stories tend to be just... Out of it enough, that some details aren't needed but when I RP with a friend, I do get oddly accurate. When my OC's needed homes, I went online and actually found them one. I knew the basics of the layout, how much it cost and at one point.. Even map quested to see how far away the were from a few others.

    At the same time, I don't think its wrong to fudge something. When I did last years NANO, I altered Leonardo DaVinci's journals to be written in a code, only one person could understand. I know, they're written backwards in reality, but to fit my story I altered that. Course... It was a time traveling story and I altered a lot of things... But still.

    I find a mix of the real and the fudged to be interesting at times, if its worked to fit the story and not done out of laziness.

  9. Great post. In my first novel, a mystery set in New York City, I spent hours researching, getting to know the lay of the land like the back of my hand of a place I'd never been.

    I loved the details, and yet, now on my eighth book, this one set in a fairytale place, I don't look for background scenery anymore.

    Thank God for urban fantasies. My hours can now go to researching fairytales, which are more fun than searching for the name of a cheap Thai restaurant on Ave D.

    And yet, it's still the details that matter. So thanks for the reminder of what it is we do, and that's make up things that people will believe.

  10. I couldn't agree more. I struggle when I'm trying to pick a setting because I know if I miss one detail or write something even the little bit off, someone will notice. I tend to write about fictional towns to avoid this. But even with the fictional town, I research the area where I'm envisioning the town and I stay true to wildlife, seasons, temperatures, scenery, etc. that would be in that area.

  11. To me, when an author says "it's okay to fudge" that's code for "I don't want to take the time and energy, so screw you, Reader!" A lame excuse for laziness.

    Anything that jars the reader out of the story is bad, whether that's egregious grammar and spelling mistakes, or a Colorado grizzly bear. (And who would want to piss off a grizzly bear, or those who love them?)

  12. Shelly, that's just wrong! Not good advice for us newbies!!

    MG, Oh I bet. That has to be one of the areas most frequently shown wrong. I'm not from there and I can laugh at getting from one side to the other in minutes. ;-p

    Miss Cole, oh yes, I completely overlooked pop culture references, but that is a big one. Stars, styles, music, movies. Those things should be fairly easy to research.

    Becca, that's good. A couple details and I can probably overlook it, but something that is repeated throughout or is a major theme or undercurrent will drive me nuts. Just when I get back into it, it rips me out again.

    Mark, very true. A couple things can be overlooked, but not when we're being beaten over the head with them.

    Mike, that's true. I can't think of a book I had to completely give up on because of it, but I do know it has tainted a story before.

    Andrew, Google Maps is awesome for that! Plus, getting directions and being able to actually view the house in advance is such a huge help.

    KCarey, I agree that, done in the right way, fudging details or changing something up can be interesting.

    Julie, it definitely sounds more fun to research fairy tales than actual details!

    Kelly, I'm all about fictional towns! But, yes, I've been trying to pay attention as I travel the state to see if there is a real area that would work for my fictional town.

    Beverly, definitely never mess with the grizzly! But yes, very true, anything that jars the reader ruins the experience, or at least detracts from it.

  13. I agree completely about getting the facts right. The story will not be ruined for me, but it will bug me if something is misrepresented. I read a story recently written by an American writer who didn't bother to get her facts correct about London. I only knew she was wrong because I lived in London for several years.. It wouldn't have taken her that much effort to Google and get the facts accurate.

  14. I totally agree with knowing your details... most of the time I trust what the book says believing they did their research... I haven't yet come across something that sticks out as wrong to me... or it could just me be not knowing:)

  15. Brenda, I agree. There are so many ways to get to know a place these days without having to go there.

    TF, I can't guarantee I noticed it so much before hearing it was important. ;-p