Fact versus Fiction

I had no idea that when I sat down to write my first novel, that I would spend nearly as much time researching it as I would writing it.  It was fiction, right?  Couldn't I just make stuff up?

Sort of.

Books are so much better when the include a level of truth, whether it's a setting detail, a character trait or an emotional undertone.  We've probably all experienced those moments when a story is so real, that we're completely transported.  Conversely, we've all been taken out of a scene when something that seems out of character, out of context, or just plain wrong happens.

As a teen I was an avid equestrian.  But whenever girls were shown  riding horses on television or in movies, it was always wrong and I could never enjoy the stories.  I remember watching an episode of Full House (okay, I might've been in my twenties) where one of the Olson twins was supposed to be in a horse show in the "Junior Jumpers" class.  Junior Jumpers is the upper echelon of amateur riding for teens- it basically involves Olympic-style show jumping over very large jumps.  But in the show, the girl was jumping tiny little cross-bars that a beginning level rider might take as her very first jump.  Rated shows don't even have classes with jumps this small.  It drove me insane.

I have the same problem with legal shows on television now that I'm an attorney.  It's hard to suspend disbelief when the basic premise is so wrong.  Most civil cases settle, never getting to trial, and those that do take years to get there.

But as writers, we can't always write about what we know, or we'd run out of ideas, characters and stories pretty quickly.  And even when we do know about a topic, sometimes reality is kind of boring. (See paragraph re: litigation above).  So I think we do get a little creative license when writing stories.  At least I hope so! There has to be a balance between faking it and boring the reader senseless with mundane details that go nowhere.

I like to have just enough information to be dangerous.  I want to know enough about a topic so that there is a grain of truth to what I'm writing, a foundation from which the story can grow, but not so much that I don't feel the freedom to let the story go where it needs to go.  It's a fine line I know.

In BANDIA, I wrote a contemporary fantasy that is based, in part on Celtic mythology.  I say in part, because much of the mythology is my own- stories I developed by answering the "what if" questions that were sparked by the "real"  myth.  To me, this was the perfect marriage of  fact and fiction, a seed of truth that became something original.  Real scholars of Celtic myth might feel like I felt while watching the horse episode of Full House, but I'm hoping that the rest of the world will be curious enough to discover for themselves what is real and what is fictional.  

Researching a topic almost always leads me to new ideas, fresh perspectives or perfect details.  For SPIES, I tried to imagine what kind of spy gear my teenage private investigator might have access to.  Enter the internet.  It turns out that a lot of really high tech spy gear is just a click away.  So is a lot of low tech crap that may or may not even work.  Can you see how this might spur the creative juices?

The danger of too much research is that you get bogged down in details.  As important as research is to your story, it must always serve the story first, not the other way around.  I mean, I could write a paper on the quality and efficacy of online spy gear, but I'd rather just tell a story.

Research can help you to understand your characters and their world and write with authenticity.  There's a fine line between peppering your story with true details and stalling the story completely in the name of factual accuracy.  There has to be a balance.

How do you use research to make your story sing?


"I like to have just enough information to be dangerous."

LOVE this line! And you're right about balance -- because I love the details, I tend to be detail-heavy before revision. Then I start to find the balance.

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