The Importance of Research in Writing

January 15, 2013
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One of the things I like most about writing is the research it leads me to. I think of a story idea and start developing it, then discover I need to know more about something that’s relevant to the story. When I was writing MageSign, for example, I needed to have a good working knowledge of cults and their methods of indoctrination. I could have just made it all up, but it’s important to me to know that I’m getting things right. And I owe it to my readers to deliver something as factually correct and consistent as possible. There’s an authenticity to well-researched fiction. Equally, poorly researched fiction stands out as being pretty rubbish, even if a reader can’t quite put their finger on why. That’s the basis for my Write The Fight Right workshops, after all.

With the cults thing I was lucky in that my mother-in-law is a psychiatrist. She’s been exposed to all kinds of stuff in her line of work and was able to direct me to good quality resources on the subject. I read a lot, educated myself and hopefully wrote an engaging and authentic book that resonated with readers. Along the way, I greatly enjoyed the process, because I learned new things. Education is good, mm-kay.

fallen lebbon The Importance of Research in WritingWhy am I bringing this up now? Well, I had a really good read partly spoiled by poor research. I’ve just read a novel by Tim Lebbon called Fallen. It’s a great read – a dark fantasy set in the world of Noreela. It’s a bold idea, got great characters, excellent writing and some really cool stuff happens (although I was really disappointed with the ending, which was a shame). I won’t give much away, except to say that the story follows two Voyagers, Ramus and Nomi, and their band of bodyguards. Ramus and Nomi travel and learn for the sake of expanding the knowledge of their nation. To the far south of their land is the Great Divide, a huge wall of rock that stretches from coast to coast and is lost in the clouds above. No one knows how high it is, what’s at the top (if it even has a top) or anything else. So, for reasons explored in interesting ways through the book, Ramus and Nomi set out to climb the Great Divide.

It is a good book and I enjoyed it for the most part. Other than the ending, which I won’t spoil, the other thing that really annoyed me was the climbing research. I don’t know how much experience Tim Lebbon has as a climber. Personally, I’ve only climbed a little bit. It’s a great pastime and one I’d like to do more. However, when I started reading the bit about the climb (which, as you can tell from my brief synopsis above, is a very large and integral part of the book) I had a shock. The characters, as they climbed, kept hammering crampons into the rock face to tie their ropes to for safety. Crampons? I has a confused. This is a crampon:

crampon The Importance of Research in Writing

Crampons are things you strap to your boots to improve traction on snow and ice, especially for ice climbing. You can get walking versions too, for glacier walking and the like. Can you imagine hammering one of those into a rock face and tying a rope to it? You be pretty fucking dead, pretty fucking quick.

These days people use passive safety devices called nuts or hexes for securing their ropes, or more active devices like spring-loaded camming devices. In the old days, they would have just hammered iron spikes into the rock face, I imagine. I don’t know this for certain and would have to research it, but that wouldn’t be hard. Especially with things like Wikipedia and all the hobby forums out there.

Incidentally, even though Lebbon made that mistake, how does something like that get past an editor? Does no-one connected with that book know what a crampon is? Well, I guess that’s a stupid question. Obviously no-one did. And it really spoiled the read for me, because I do know what a crampon is and every time I read about a character hammering one into the rock the narrative became farcical and I ground my teeth and had to try to ignore it and push on regardless.

I’m glad I did because, like I said, it is a good book, ending notwithstanding. Except for the bloody crampon thing. There was another thing I read once, written by an American, where a character passed briefly through England and stopped in a shop. He was charged in Euros. They don’t use Euros in Britain – still the good old pound sterling. It’s a small thing that’s really annoying because it makes the author look dumb and makes the reader question everything else included in the book. If a writer can’t tell the difference between a shoe accessory and a safety device, can I trust him or her on anything else? Unless, of course, I’m really missing something vital and there’s another definition of crampon that I’m not aware of and couldn’t find when I checked.

Even in fantasy and other forms of speculative fiction, it’s really important to get the details right. Internal consistency is essential and building your speculative world in a framework of believable and accurate detail is the only way that suspension of disbelief will survive. We all make mistakes, I’m sure. I bet there are some things in my books that make certain people grind their teeth in frustration. I really hope there aren’t, but I’m not so egotistical to think that I’ve got everything exactly right. But I do try to get things right, I research deeply and the bonus is that I really enjoy that research.

We’re always told to write what we know. Which is a load of bollocks, of course, because we’d run out of things pretty quickly. But we can learn about stuff and then write about it. It’s important that we do, because the process is good fun and it makes us better writers and more informed people. Then we write better books and stories.

Perhaps this whole post is easily summed up thus: When you’re writing, make sure you know the difference between a spiky shoe accessory and an iron spike.

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17 Responses to The Importance of Research in Writing

  1. Nalini Haynes on January 15, 2013 at 8:39 pm

    Yes. THIS. I’ve been struggling to review a book that has received huge acclaim but the central character is an albino and the author doesn’t seem to understand what that really means other than the obvious pale skin and sunburn.

  2. alan on January 15, 2013 at 8:47 pm

    Yep. I think albinism is an often misrepresented thing in fiction. And they’re always villains, right?

  3. Nalini Haynes on January 15, 2013 at 9:03 pm

    Usually, although Luna Lovegood was either albino or an albino-like person. At least she was a ‘good guy’ and intelligent although she was supposed to be somewhat off with the fairies. I’ve finally published the review here http://www.darkmatterfanzine.com/dmf/akata-witch-by-nnedi-okorafor/ it has links including to the Wikipedia page: pop culture representations of albinism are so consistently negative, even Wikipedia has put up a page on the topic.

  4. Linda Adams - Solder, Storyteller on January 15, 2013 at 10:15 pm

    Since I was in the military, I can always tell if the writer got the military right. Usually it seems to be that the writer picked an officer because officers seem important or romantic — and then give the officer an enlisted job … Though the worst was from a vet, but from the wrong era. No doubt that was why he included a rank that had been discontinued prior to the time of the story …

    Maybe not being detail-oriented works for me. If I put something into the book, I have to verify it and put the reference number of the book. Being so poor with details guarantees I can’t trust myself to get it right so everything gets checked.

  5. Simon Cootes on January 16, 2013 at 8:48 am

    5 minutes of research later, I assume the author was thinking of a piton rather than a crampon

  6. alan on January 16, 2013 at 10:34 am

    Simon – Yes, I think you’re probably right.

  7. Sean the Blogonaut on January 16, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    Did anyone else pick up Ellen Klages use of cookies instead of biscuits in her Sherlock Holmes piece Household Management? Easy to do I suppose, but it did drop me out of the story.

  8. alan on January 16, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    Yep, that would bug me too. My publisher (of RealmShift and MageSign) is in the US. Whenever they get work that features a British component from a non-British author, they always send me the relevant sections to proof-read. I’ve picked up things like sidewalk/pavement for them. It’s very easy to double-check this stuff, especially in this day and age.

  9. alan on January 18, 2013 at 11:04 am

    Seems Lebbon is a serial offender here, too. I did a search to see if anyone else was complaining about the crampons thing in Fallen and found an excerpt from another of his novels where he’s used crampons the same way!

  10. Nalini Haynes on January 18, 2013 at 11:07 am

    Seriously? A mistake once may be excusable, but publicists collect reviews and pass them on to authors. If he’s been lambasted for errors in the past he has no excuse for getting it wrong a second time.

  11. alan on January 18, 2013 at 11:15 am

    That’s just it though, I don’t think he has. I couldn’t find anyone else pointing out the error, and only found more of the same errors when I searched! Maybe it’s me…

  12. Simon Cootes on January 21, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    Terry Pratchett, in Pyramids, has a character screwing crampons into a wall when climbing. I decided to look up the OED. Crampon was an archaic term for a bent piece of metal, similar to a grappling hook. Modern usage is still for the shoe plate though.

  13. alan on January 21, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    Is that right? So, were crampons ever used for the climbing methods Lebbon and Pratchett describe? Would you screw them in and use them to secure rope?

    This also brings up another slight side issue – the use of old language in faux-medieval settings for fantasy. Personally, I still think they’re both wrong… :)

  14. Simon Cootes on January 21, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    Looks like they were used more as a hook for pulling things along, like timber or stones

  15. alan on January 21, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    I see. There is another definition where it’s two opposing hooks, joined with a ring at the top through which a rope is passed. When the rope is pulled, the two hooks kinda grip together. Maybe that’s similar to what you’ve discovered.

    So still wrong for climbing then!

  16. Susan Malter on January 27, 2013 at 6:46 am

    I cannot hang tight to my suspension of disbelief when a crampon appears in the wrong place. I say “cannot,” but I know I can if I try; it is possible. The writing has to be so good, though, that I am willing to ignore the ignorance. Well, we must soldier on as readers, right? Writers, like all people, cannot know what they do not know. Working with a good editor sounds like a habit to keep in mind. Thank you for an interesting blog!

  17. [...] is a reprint from Alan Baxter‘s Warrior Scribe [...]

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