Look It Up in Your Funk and Wagnall’s

Yeah, I know. Ancient history reference. Which is appropriate, because today I’m going to talk about research.

The subject of research came up elsewhere recently. Specifically, some people make the argument that, for fantasy especially, “You’re just making stuff up and so you don’t have to do research. Even for work set on earth in a particular point in history, no one’s going to ding you for minor oopsies other than some anal history types. Regular readers don’t care.”

To start, I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a  “regular reader.” I think readers are varied people with varied interests, and are likely to know a bit about the period you’re writing in and dang well do care, but that’s actually not what I want to talk about (ok, “write about.” Don’t be so dang literal). See, I believe the premise that research is unnecessary is wrong-headed on at least two levels, and I want to concentrate on the second, not the first.

On the first level, yes, you do research to “get it right.” This is the “Will this be on the Test?” theory of research. To a degree I can sympathize. Put this way it sounds a lot like scutwork, but there’s a lot more to it than not giving the Normans 13th century English longbows at Hastings or referring to an 11th Century Japanese nobleman as a “samurai.” Research isn’t just about avoiding mistakes. That’s important but secondary. Even if you’re working in a world of your own, it’s going to be based on or a reaction to historial analogues. Nothing comes from nothing. So you do research to enrich your story and, in some cases, to find the story in the first place.

I’ll use examples from my own stash since, well, they’re the only ones I have. One of the Goji Yamada stories (Prime Books 2013, plug or fair warning) concerns Kenji and Goji making a trek to the frozen north ofJapan to help with a delicate political matter. That delicate matter proves to be that the local “barbarian” leader’s daughter-in-law has been kidnapped. Two problems: the leader’s son is dead and his daughter-in-law is a wooden doll. No, the leader is not crazy. It was the custom in that part of Japan that, when a boy or young man died before marriage, the family would create an effigy of a bride, have it blessed by a priest, and symbolically marry the figure to the deceased before donating it to the temple for safe-keeping. It was believed that the doll’s spirit would then serve as the deceased’s “wife,” giving him the company and support in the spirit world that he never had in life. Now, was that merely a research detail? Heck no. It was the genesis of the entire story. I stumbled upon that piece of information while doing research for another piece, and once I found it, I knew there was a story there. No research? No story.

Besides providing the germs of story ideas, research enriches what you’re already doing. Does this really need to be explained? Probably not to anyone here, but you never know. I’m amazed any working writer would take the “research is unnecessary” position in the first place, but apparently some do.

In “Moon Viewing at Shijo Bridge,” I needed a letter to disappear from a heavily-guarded Imperial compound and a princess to vanish in front of two alert guards, and both in a way that was both integral to the story and plausible in context. Related reading on the nature on Japanese theories of magic in the Heian period gave me exactly what I needed–the shikigami. In To Break the Demon Gate (PS Publishing, late 2012), a bad guy has taken over a temple that guards the eastern approaches to the Capital. A temple? How is that a threat to our heroes? Two reasons: Warrior monks (sohei) and the concept of the ikiryo, the first from historical reading and the second straight from The Tale of Genji. Could I have written the book without those two bits of information? Sure. Would it have been as good as I humbly think it is? I seriously doubt it.

Yeah, yeah. Thank you, Captain Obvious. Ok, here’s something not quite so obvious, and why this particular meme is so insidiously dangerous–when someone says, “Oh, I never do research” what they’re really saying is “I’ve already done all the research I’m going to do.” They already have what they need, in their opinion: HS or college-level history. Earlier readings and stories, including childhood reading that they’ve already done ages ago. There’s some validity in this. I didn’t do any new research when I wrote “Kallisti,”  because I really had already done what I needed. I knew the story of the Judgment of Paris so well that it was no problem at all to do my own take on it. I didn’t do any new research for “The Plum Blossom Lantern,” because I already knew the Edo period ghost story that it was based on. The research was already done. This is extremely useful when it happens, but it can also be a trap.

That’s right—trap. Once you stop searching, once you think “Ok, I’m done” it means you’ve lost interest, both in your subjects and in the idea of getting better. You’re no longer finding new information, and more to the point, new connections between those bits of information. You’ve stopped looking for the tools that would help you grow as a writer. You write about the same things, with the same toolkit, that you’ve always had. You have a hammer, so to speak. It may be a very fine hammer, but that’s all it is. All you can do is assemble the pieces of wood as they are. Pretty soon you’re repeating yourself because, well, you can’t do anything else.

That’s the trap. And the ones caught by it don’t even realize it. But I can gurantee you their readers do.

2 thoughts on “Look It Up in Your Funk and Wagnall’s

  1. You are so right about not doing research and that becoming a trap. I’m not saying my stories are 100% accurate. They’re not meant to be because sometimes the story itself must take precedent over the historical accuracy. But the background HAS to be there if I require it, and only through diligent research can I be assured of that.

    This was a good post and helpful to me. Thanks! 🙂

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