Monday, October 22, 2012

A Few Last Words on Research

     I am the last person who should be writing the last post on research.  One, I am a former librarian. Once a librarian, always a librarian. Two, I write historical fiction which requires research. Lots of it.

     I read Sherman Alexie's blog post.  He has some valid points but the one about not doing a lot of research is not one of them. However, Sherman Alexie plays in a whole different league than I do.
He (mostly) writes adult fiction about his own culture. I write historical fiction for children. He is a big name A-list writer. I am not. Because he is a big name A-list writer he can flippantly say things like  (paraphrase here) that if you that you get details wrong, you can always change them in the paperback. If I get things wrong, there is no paperback, because reviewers have picked up on my gaffes and no one bought the book. I am not in a position to not get every detail correct, to the best of my ability.

     Since all of us TA's have agreed that research is important, I will throw out a few other thoughts to consider on the subject.

   1.  We are writing for children. While kids are growing more sophisticated all the time, they still are the most willing of humans to buy into "suspension of disbelief."  For instance, when I was teaching there was a popular Sprite commercial that feature a half lemon-half lime fruit that the advertisers called a "limon." I had teenagers who were convinced that the "limon" was an actual fruit just because it was on TV.  If you don't want to do research, don't write for kids.

   2.   More and more, children's literature, both contemporary and historical fiction, is being used to supplement teaching materials. Playing fast and loose with details often results in students thinking that for the most part, mankind has behaved and thought like contemporary Western society.  This is my special pet peeve.  I wrote my master's thesis on the overwhelming falseness in many award-winning books, used as classroom texts. (No names mentioned here; I have no desire to pick fights with authors who are better known than I.)  Suffice it to say, that while these books are popular and "good reads"they present a false picture of life in other times.

3.   Willing as children are to believe what they read, they can pick up on the places where the writer is just plain sloppy. I've read books where specific geographic places that are hundreds of miles apart, are
place within walking distance of each other. I've read "southern" dialect that bore no resemblance to anyone I know, and I've lived 90% of my life in the South (in different places.) Using dialect is a tricky
thing anyway, one that deserves it's own post.  I'll just say here, when in doubt, don't "dialect."

4.  If you ever find yourself thinking "Gee, I'm not sure about this or that. I'll just stick it in without looking it up.  The editor will never notice." Wrong.  The editor will always notice. That's their job.

5.   The best compliment you can get as a writer is when a reader says "I felt like I was so there.  I was in this complete little world that you wrote." The way you build that complete little world is research.

   Research does not mean you have to spend time and money visiting every location in your story. The best research story I have heard is concerning Laura Hillenbrand.  While she was writing the book Seabiscuit (which ultimately became the award winning Tobey Maguire movie), Hillenbrand suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome.  Sitting at her computer a few hours a day was all she could manage.  She arranged her research books in piles around her chair, and kept her phone at hand to interview those who had been part of Seabiscuit's story.  She never left her office.  When her books or the Internet didn't have her answer, she had various research librarians on speed dial.

    So what's your excuse for not doing your research homework?    The right answer?  There is no excuse for not doing your research.

    Don't forget to enter our current Guest Book Author Giveaway Eileen Meyer's Who's Faster? Animals on the Move.

    Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


The Pen and Ink Blog said...

I love research. Especially since we now have the World Wide Web which puts so many tools at our fingertips. Also still love visiting the library stacks.

The Pen and Ink Blog said...

I love research. Especially since we now have the World Wide Web which puts so many tools at our fingertips. Also still love visiting the library stacks.
( I have just tried 3 times to pass the robot test. AAARRRRGGGGHHH)

Carmela Martino said...

Dear Pen and Ink Blogger,
So sorry about your difficulties passing the "robot test." Thanks for making the extra effort to leave a comment--we love hearing from our readers. I've disabled Word Verification for now. I hope we won't be inundated with Spam as a result.

mary ann rodman said...

Glad it's not just me having trouble with the "robot test!" Yes, I love research, but I have to cut myself off at some point. One of my favorite writers, Ellen Gilchrist, who did one historical fiction book (probably for the following reason, said that she could research endlessly. It can be a stalling technique for actually getting down to work. The way I work is that I am usually editing one book, writing another, and researching a third. I cut myself off at six months of research. After that, ready or not I start writing. And of course, I always come to a spot where i realize I need to know the price of a funeral bouquet in 1965 or when the movie THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS played in Pittsburgh in 1944. At that point, instead of fiddling around online all morning, I make a "shopping list" of these questions and save them for a two hour period in my writing week when I am not in a good writing place, but I am feeling like researching.

Linda at teacherdance said...

Love hearing your words, Mary Ann. I will be sure to get this in the hands of my colleagues, where students research all the time, & it's a challenge to keep up with them, but also to get them to fact-check. In fiction, it's important too, & I enjoy it so much when the writer, as you wrote, puts us into that place completely. That's how one travels sometimes. Thank you!

Megan Frances said...

I so agree. Maybe it's my journalism background that makes me so driven to do research for my WIP. I may not use a tenth of what I find out - but I have this pool of information that will add layers to my story.
On another note, you mean there's no such thing as a limon!