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20 February 2012 @ 09:11 am
Research  
Over on a mailing list I'm on, there's been a discussion about how wrong the movies and TV often are about guns (e.g. how easy it is to hit a target while jumping, running, etc.), which led to a discussion of how wrong fiction often is about other things, like horses and computers.

I've learned that the more you know about anything (computers, horses, guns, medicine), the more you realize that fiction and the popular press get them completely wrong. It's really not a good idea to believe anything you read.

When writing popular fiction, you will never be able to satisfy 100% of your readers with the accuracy of your portrayals (the TV show ER had several doctors on staff as technical advisers, and they often disagreed even with each other), so there's no point in researching too much or worrying too much about getting it 100% right. Furthermore, even completely accurate facts, backed up with research and personal experience, may bounce the reader out of the story if they conflict too much with the reader's expectations. But if you rely only on what you remember from reading fiction, not only will your facts be wrong but the story will be lazy, flabby, and unsurprising.

It's a balancing act. The trick is to do just enough research that you can surprise your readers (the average reader) with unexpected details that make the work feel fresh and realistic.

Often the only way to get to that point is to do too much research and then, reluctantly, leave a lot of the really cool stuff out.

 
 
 
the laughing leaping waterminnehaha on February 20th, 2012 05:22 pm (UTC)
The art is in letting the reader know that all that really cool stuff is informing the underpinnings of the story, even though it doesn't show through. Which we all learned from Tolkien, among others.

K.
KMSvgqn on February 20th, 2012 05:44 pm (UTC)
Tangentially related: We just watched Grimm's Danse Macabre last night. There's an early scene where they're getting ready to open the rat-infested car and say that the animal control people (as well as others) are ready. When they open the door, a flood of rats pour out of the car while the lone 'animal control' person fruitlessly waves a butterfly net around. We collapsed in laughter. Not the effect the scene was supposed to have, I'm sure.
Reply Hazy, Ask Again Laterreplyhazy on February 20th, 2012 07:46 pm (UTC)
I just read an excellent interview with a neurologist who specializes in the history of neurology -- he was interviewed about Downton Abbey. A character is injured in the battle of the Somme and comes home paralyzed from the waist down. The doctor explained that at the time, 80% of spinal cord injury victims died within a few weeks due to infections. "I'm sure everybody's glad I'm not writing the script," he said.
pennskipennski on February 20th, 2012 09:19 pm (UTC)
Oh that was one of the worst cases of TV paralysis - completely incapable of doing anything until crisis occurs - suddenly instantly better and saving the day. Very funny for all the wrong reasons.

Did you know Highclere Castle is just up the road from our house? (less than 10 miles away).
Reply Hazy, Ask Again Laterreplyhazy on February 20th, 2012 10:26 pm (UTC)
Is it owned by the same Carnarvons who were involved in financing the Tutankhamon expedition? Or is a title that's been distributed hither and yon?
pennskipennski on February 22nd, 2012 07:17 pm (UTC)
The very same!

The fifth Earl is buried just off the top of Beacon Hill, overlooking his estate ("I can see your house from here").
Dave O'Neilldaveon on February 20th, 2012 09:54 pm (UTC)
We had some Doctor friends around to watch various TV yesterday and they mentioned that while they loathed ER (it's really RARELY like that), they loved Scrubs. So we watched a British pre-cursor to Scrubs called Green Wing, which is basically Scrubs as envisaged by Terry Gillian on acid. They felt it was disturbing accurate, especially the OR scenes.

The thing that shocked me about guns, the few times I've used them was how hard it is to actually miss the thing you are basically pointing at if you're within a few tens of feet and using your finger as a guide. I was also impressed by how easy it is to jam a cheap Chinese copy of a slide action glock 9mm....

Don't see that happen in the movies often either.
Reply Hazy, Ask Again Laterreplyhazy on February 20th, 2012 10:32 pm (UTC)
Clearly then, you are a Good Guy. Bad Guys, as any fule know, can't hit the broad side of a barn.
Wolf Lahti: antimonywolflahti on February 20th, 2012 11:49 pm (UTC)
"There's no point in researching too much or worrying too much about getting it 100% right."

No point? Even when you are sure you are 100% accurate in your facts, you will not be; something will be awry somewhere in your thinking or research -- and opinions simply differ, as you said. If you do not bother to strive for the most accuracy you can achieve, a geometric progression of error floods in, and the results rapidly snowball from merely inaccurate to laughable, and you lose the respect of your readers/viewers.

It is an axiom in the industry that story trumps truth, but a conscientious writer will always endeavor to provide both.
David D. Levinedavidlevine on February 21st, 2012 03:46 am (UTC)
I reiterate: "there's no point in researching too much or worrying too much."

If accuracy, as you point out, is asymptotic (you can approach but never achieve 100% accuracy), I'm sure you will agree that this implies that there is a point of diminishing returns. If you are spending all your time researching and none on writing, or expending all your energy on accuracy and none on advancing the plot and developing the characters, that's plainly nonproductive; if you are spending only most of your time on research and accuracy that is probably not a good idea either. Of course, if you spend no time on research and accuracy that is bad in the opposite direction.

The sweet spot, I maintain, is somewhere below "the most accuracy you can achieve." That statement prioritizes accuracy over everything else (plot, character, delivering a finished story on time or indeed at all) and I can't believe that would be a good strategy for a writer to follow.

I don't agree that failure to "strive for the most accuracy you can achieve" results in a "geometric progression of error." That's like saying that if you don't nail every door of your house shut, thieves will immediately steal all of your possessions. There's always a balance between security and convenience, and likewise there's a balance between research and the other aspects of writing.

Where is the line between "just the right amount of research" and "too much"? As I said in the original post, often the only way to find that line is to go past it. But you should be alert to the possibility that you have passed the point of diminishing returns, and when you realize you have passed it, stop before you sink any more time and energy into polishing that which is already smooth enough.

Also, as others have pointed out in comments, don't just research; show your finished draft to an expert in the field and accept corrections.
Wolf Lahtiwolflahti on February 21st, 2012 07:07 pm (UTC)
Conducting research is a wonderful thing! It can keep me from having to actually write the book for months at a time! ;)
dsgood on February 21st, 2012 01:37 am (UTC)
Some suggestions: 1) Use what you know. If you're an engineer, don't write about governments which operate exactly according to the specs and with no friction. 2) Ask the kinds of people you're writing about. If you're writing about people with Those Horrible Political Views, ask them to look over what you write; don't take your facts from those who crusade against them. If you're writing about another gender, ask at least one member of that gender. If you're writing about someone with synesthesia, ask at least one synesthete to look it over. 3) Don't take your idea of what it looks like from the movies.
abqdanabqdan on February 21st, 2012 03:58 am (UTC)
I used to worry about accuracy in drama. When anything related to my own field of computer technology was inaccurate in a movie, I'd grind my teeth in horror. Then I realized it's just a story, and the viewer must suspend their disbelief in order to enjoy the tale. Sometimes, things are done to aid the story-telling that everyone knows are inaccurate. Guns are an interesting case in point - I remember a documentary about just that. If someone shoots you with a 9mm you aren't driven backwards at high velocity through plate glass windows. You just drop. (Obvious really, when you stop to think about the physics).

After all, there really aren't any werewolves, vampires, goblins and the like - but they certainly make for a good storyline!
David D. Levinedavidlevine on February 21st, 2012 04:11 am (UTC)
Alas, even though the reader is willing to accept the impossible they may still be kicked out of the story by something improbable. Remember how people laughed at the ridiculous computer errors in Jurassic Park -- a story about living dinosaurs in the twentieth century?

(Apropos of my discussion above with wolflahti, avoiding the obvious computer errors in Jurassic Park would not have required "too much" research.)
et in Arcadia egobooapostle_of_eris on February 24th, 2012 03:02 pm (UTC)
OK, it's tangential, but I just love the line so much:
“If you don't teach machines and horses to do what you want in their way they'll teach you to do what they want in your way.”
Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin
paulshandy on March 1st, 2012 03:58 am (UTC)
And most of the crime solving genre is dependent for drama upon the weakest and least likely link in the evidence chain: the confession.