I once read a Gothic novel purporting to be about the world of ballet. Or more specifically, about the evil brother of a Russian ballerina. She was named Ivanova. So was he. I ended up throwing the book across the room in disgust. No self-respecting Russian male was going to call himself “a female descendant of Ivan,” which is what Ivanova means. He should have been Ivanov. The writer hadn’t bothered to do any more research about ballet beyond finding one (specifically female) Russian name, and obviously, none about male Russian ballet figures. The storyline was about as bare, too, telling me nothing beyond the merest clichés. I was a kid at the time, but even then I knew that an author ought to research a topic before writing about it.
It doesn’t take a lot of research to write a credible work of fiction about the ballet world. Newspapers write about ballet every season. There are biographies of famous dancers in books and magazines. One can also attend a ballet, or obtain copies of performances via the Internet. And there’s the option of gaining an in-person interview with a dancer or a local dance teacher and asking lots of questions. How hard is it to research ballet? Not hard at all. What an author ends up using in a novel about ballet might be the tip of the iceberg of all this research. But having done the research, the author won’t make beginners’ mistakes that every child in America who has ever had ballet lessons would notice. Quick, what’s second position? If you said plié, you pass.
So why didn’t that writer do any significant research? Maybe because the author believed the typical Gothic romance reader was too ignorant to notice and too indifferent to care. Or maybe because the author knew that no one was reviewing those books. There would be no public negative consequences to the author’s reputation for doing zero research. And certainly no warnings given to potential readers not to buy the book. Such a cynical position can be sustained by the numerous sales of really awful books that nevertheless find a target audience looking for a particular kind of storyline. Many readers are not interested in the quality of a book’s research per se. They just want some entertainment. Still, they assume that the writer has built the story on facts. And repeat business is a big question in this situation, both from the publisher and from the reader. If the author treats the story like a throwaway, so does everyone else.
There are other readers who care very much about accurate research. They pick up the book because it uses a locale, talks about a profession, or is set in a period of history about which they already know something. Every reader has some pet topics that they know a lot about and yet still like to keep reading about. For this segment of readers, an author absolutely must do significant research. Otherwise, the story comes across as a feeble gloss on the topic instead of being convincing. And today there are numerous romance reviews. Although some tend to pussyfoot about making negative comments, shoddy research is likely to get pilloried because it’s not a matter of opinion. If an author does not want to experience the public disdain of being known for thin or inaccurate research, here are some simple rules to keep quality good and reputation intact:
1. Do not rely on other novels as primary research. This would seem obvious, but a lot of writers think they know something when they’ve never read any original source material. Knowing that in romances Bonnie Prince Charlie is usually portrayed as a good guy is not the same as knowing what he was really like, or what the struggle for the British throne was all about. Having watched numerous TV shows is not the same as researching the goings on involved in creating or airing them. Having seen pictures of Hawaii is not the same as researching what Hawaii is like.
2. Do not rely on movies as primary research, either. Hollywood is notorious for its inaccuracies of all sorts. Even a nicely filmed Jane Austen novel by Merchant Ivory isn’t historical research. It might put one in the mood and give some sensory clues; movies are visually rich. But it’s not research.
3. Find original sources. In addition to the many conventional sources such as newspapers and personal interviews, we’re lucky today to have an incredible free library via the Internet. The sources available range from the well known to the truly obscure. Many out-of-print books are on the net in their entirety. There is no user fee or interlibrary loan wait time. There also are plenty of historical images from many centuries available on the Internet. Want to know that Marie Antoinette looked like? Try the Internet. Or what’s involved in being a jeweler? There are 15 million entries. As for locales, there are satellite photos as well as numerous travel sites.
4. Find solid secondary resources. Most periods of history are described in somebody’s nonfiction work. Most major figures have been the subject of biographies. And, even more helpful, most biographies and histories have been reviewed by critics. No writer has to waste time reading the duds or taking them at face value. The same goes for professions and locales. Numerous books and magazines exist to give guidance.
5. Cross check sources. Read more than one version. History is the fiction written by the winners. Sometimes the losers’ point of view is underrepresented yet can be the basis of an impressive novel. Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time is a famous instance of a beautifully done piece of revisionist history as fiction. Reading it might not convince a reader that Richard III was a swell guy. But it makes clear that the monster he is in Shakespeare’s play could be an exaggeration instead of the exact historical truth. The same applies to other research topics. Is Jack Welch a genius or an evildoer? Who is Jack Welch, anyway?
6. Do not use anyone’s name or any facts unless they have been checked for accuracy. It takes about one minute to make sure of the right date for the Spanish Armada’s attempted invasion of England. Or the population of Guam. More obscure facts might take two minutes.
7. Do not lift other people’s writing. This is something that should have been learned in elementary school, but obviously bears repeating. The moral issue is clear: claiming someone else’s work as one’s own is stealing. The consequences should be even more obvious, since it’s now incredibly easy to be found out as a plagiarist. The Internet will tell on anyone who dares to copy someone else’s work. Let admirable passages inspire, but write about these topics in fresh, entirely original language. A professional writer should not be copying or paraphrasing like a fifth grader.
8. Give credit where credit is due. It’s the right thing to do. No one will think less of an author who includes a bibliography or an author’s note citing the writers whose works influenced the story. These citations don’t have to follow rigid style guides; they can be completely informal. But any souce that contributed in a significant way ought to be credited, such as a stirring first-hand account of an historical event.
With these guidelines in hand, any writer can create a novel that is based on solid research, has something to tell the reader, and stays within the boundaries of fair play. The result of good research is a richer, more credible story.
Copyright © 2009 by Irene Vartanoff
And check your math and physics, please.