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Researching Your Novel: Dos and Don'ts

I always think writers have an interesting dilemma with research. 

On the one hand, readers want you to get the practical details right. There are few things more annoying than finding a glaring inaccuracy in a story. Not only does it pull you out of the story, it makes you trust the author less.

One of my favorite examples is from the original Terminator movie. After the psychologist in the movie interviews the soldier who came from the future, he goes back to his colleagues and says the soldier is delusional. Good so far – any psychologist familiar with psychosis (which can include delusions) would probably agree. But then the character excitedly remarks how unusual the soldier’s story is. “I could make a career out of this guy!” he crows. 

Every single time I watch that, I do a *facepalm.* Not only are the themes of the soldier’s “delusions” about a machine that looks human (i.e. the Terminator) not unusual, there’s actually a name that would probably fit them—Capgras delusions. As a result, the psychologist looks like he started practicing the day before when he’s supposed to be a seasoned professional. (Admittedly, his refusal to believe in the Terminators becomes an ongoing joke in the movies.)

On the other hand, there’s that glorious thing we call “artist's license.” Artist's license means we can play with the truth and bend reality to fit our purposes. Sometimes, to make a scene or story work, we really do need to use a little of the artist's license magic.

With those things in mind, here are a few dos and don’ts to help you figure out when to stick to the facts and when to fudge the truth a bit.

Do: Research!

Especially if you publish, your book will be read by all kinds of people – including people who are experts in areas you aren’t. Though it can be tempting to muddle your way through a scene by being as vague as possible, details are part of what bring the story to life.

I’ve researched everything from the bubonic plague to Britishisms to how to take apart a Sig Sauer. I bet you’ve got a list of bizarre things you’ve looked up, too. And the glory of the internet is that information on all of those things is readily available out there. 

Do: Use Reliable Sites

You can tell that one of my pet peeves is when people use psychology inaccurately in their stories. Unfortunately, there’s so much inaccurate information out there that it’s easy for writers to make the same mistakes everyone before them did. 

There are, for example, two types of websites on ECT (“electroshock” therapy): the ones that insist on perpetuating the idea that modern “modified” ECT is just like the old, torturous “unmodified” ECT; and the ones that have information based in modern practice. (This is not to say that ECT is an amusement park ride, only that it’s not what you usually see in the movies.)

My point here is that you need to choose the resources you rely on carefully. There’s a lot of bogus information out there, and an awful lot of people don’t know how to cull the wheat from the chaff. In fact, so many people fail to think critically about things they find on the internet that a man named Lyle Zapato decided to prove their gullibility. He created a convincing, professional-looking website encouraging visitors to “help save the endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus from extinction.” These days, it’s easy to find out that there is no tree octopus, but for a while a lot of people were fooled

So think about the website you’re consulting – what evidence do you have that the information on it is accurate? Remember, good misinformation is usually mixed with accurate information to make it harder to tell what’s real and what’s not. And just because a website looks professional doesn’t mean its content is any good. It just means the creator knows how to build a website.

Once in a while you’ll end up with egg in your face no matter what you do, so don’t kick yourself too hard if that happens. I’ve learned things in psychology textbooks, complete with research citations, that people later tell me are outdated or inaccurate. “But the publication date is 2010!” I cry, embarrassed. But even textbook publishers can forget to double-check their facts over the years. Something that was “true” when the first edition came out may no longer be true in the 12th edition…but nobody’s bothered to check.

Don’t: Use Research to Procrastinate 

Let’s face it, researching obscure facts can be fun. Anyone who’s ever started on a Wikipedia page with a totally benign topic and ended up three hours later reading about some obscure factoid on a page that has nothing to do with the first one knows that the web isn’t just a tool…it can also be a black hole. We get sucked in and can’t seem to find our way back out.

Some writers love to research. They love it so much it’s their procrastination of choice. Some writers are distracted by Facebook or the sudden urge to clean the entire house, but others convince themselves they’re doing something useful when they research. 

The reality is that when you keep researching far beyond the things that you needed to know, you’re not doing it for your story anymore. You may be doing it to procrastinate. If you find a goldmine of information you must plumb for new story ideas, bookmark it or print it and then go back to it later, when you’re not supposed to be writing.

Don’t: Put All of Your Research into Your Novel

We rarely find the factoid we need lying all alone, packaged up and ready to use. Instead, we have to dig through hills (sometimes mountains) of other information. Once you’ve spent all that time and energy learning about [insert your research topic here], you want to use it! That can lead to technical infodumps that bring your story to a grinding halt. 

Like perfume or cologne, researched facts should be used sparingly. We’ve all met people who have been wearing a particular scent for so long that they no longer smell it, so they put on more and more until the smell practically knocks those around them off their feet. Avoid doing the same thing to your readers. You don’t need to hit them over the head with every last thing you learned. 

Feel free to write a research-heavy scene like that if you really need to, but then save it in a separate file and pare the real one down so only the key information is there.

Do: Use Your Artist’s License When You Need It

If you paint yourself into a corner with your research and discover that what you need to happen isn’t likely, remember that isn’t likely doesn’t mean it’s impossible. That just means that your character is an outlier (someone who experiences something most people don’t). 

Other times you actually need to bend the rules. I recently worked with a writer who wanted her character to believe he was turning into a werewolf, but he had no other psychological symptoms. This would usually mean the character has what we call a delusional disorder, in which a person stubbornly believes in something that has no basis in reality, despite evidence and logic to the contrary. The problem is that people with delusional disorders only have “non-bizarre” delusions. That means the not-real things they believe are possible in the world as we know it. (Perhaps extremely unlikely, but possible nonetheless.) Non-bizarre delusions are usually things like believing someone who's not in love with you is, or that someone's following you when they're not, or that a partner is cheating when they're not.

Believing one is becoming a werewolf would qualify as a bizarre delusion – it is not possible in the world as we know it. And if someone is having bizarre delusions, they are diagnosed with schizophrenia, which usually has additional symptoms.

I told the writer she had two possible approaches she could take.

First, if werewolves are in fact possible in the world you've created, your problem is solved! The delusion is no longer bizarre, so a delusional disorder makes total sense. 
The other approach you could take is to call it a delusional disorder (if you're going to name it) and just ignore the fact that the delusion your character is having is technically bizarre. That's where the artist's license comes in.

Happy researching!

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook
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2 comments:

On January 23, 2013 at 7:06 PM , Jan Newman said...

Writers using research to procrastinate? Sounds like something I need to look up . . . Good suggestions. Using artistic license is a delicate process on the one hand, but on the other hand there's The Twelve Rooms of the Nile. Can the writer make it work?

 
On January 27, 2013 at 9:16 PM , Linda Adams said...

I'd add one more -- don't forget to use books for research. I find that I often spend less time getting information if I look at one good book than if I hunt the internet for it. As a result, I mainly use the internet when I need a photo of what something looks like and books for the rest.