Wednesday, March 30, 2011

My Comments on the Importance of Writing Research

One of the most important parts of writing quality fiction is doing quality research.  One need go no farther than to find hundreds of instances where the creators of fictional works have gotten things wrong.

The page “You Fail History Forever” lists the 2004 Phantom of the Opera as one example. The film begins in 1870 and lasts at least through the winter of that year (it's sunny at the beginning of the film but the duel between Raoul and the Phantom takes place in the winter). Most of the Franco-Prussian War took place during this time but the war is never mentioned at all. Paris would not be so wonderful and glamorous either — the city was besieged by the Prussians and later rebelled against the French government, with much human suffering accompanying both. I enjoyed the movie but someone with more knowledge of French history would have been rather vexed.

Another page, “You Fail Religious Studies Forever,” lists the “Holy War” story arc of The Uncanny X-Men. That storyline depicts a mutant-hating cult attempting to disguise the devoutly-Catholic (but rather demonic in appearance) mutant Nightcrawler as a normal-looking human in order to get him elected Pope. They intend to reveal his true appearance at the same time incendiary communion wafers are used to vaporize Catholics. The goal of this scheme is to make people think the Rapture of the Church had taken place and provoke a holy war against mutants.

There is one small problem — the Catholic Church does not teach the Rapture. I cannot say what would happen if this improbable scenario somehow took place in real life but I’m pretty sure the surviving Catholics would not assume the Rapture had taken place and they’d been left behind.

Although some movies or books can be enjoyable in spite of errors, some errors can be so severe they ruin the reader’s suspension of disbelief. In an early draft of my novel Battle for the Wastelands, a member of my writing group who is a retired army sergeant pointed out some errors in military training and tactics. 

Considering the primary audience for a novel of this nature would be young men with an interest in matters military, allowing these errors to go uncorrected would jeopardize the chances of publication, gain the book bad reviews and thus poorer sales or perhaps even both.

Although research can often be time-consuming, in our day and age, it is much less difficult than in the past. When I lived in Lovejoy and McDonough, I borrowed two of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels (which used The Recollections of Rifleman Harris, a British infantryman who fought against Napoleon, as a major source) from the statewide PINES library network for research into Napoleonic-era tactics. I also extensively researched the Persian Gulf War for another project, research that eventually was used in my Transformers fan-fiction “The Revenge of the Fallen Reboot.”  Although not all library systems are created equal, a trip to the local library or libraries should be on every writer's to-do list.  And if you live in Georgia, the PINES Network is really helpful--although it might take a long time for materials to arrive, you'll have access to a whole state's worth of books rather than just your local library's.

Furthermore, there’s also the Internet. Although the Internet has a reputation for unreliability of information, the sheer number of sources one can access instantly is astounding and one can compensate for the possibility of error by checking something against multiple sources. If one cannot find necessary books at the local library, one can find them posted on Google Books or purchase them from 

For an alternate-history scenario I might set a story or stories in, I researched the population figures of French-colonized Vietnam on Google Books, while I purchased The Dictionary of the American West for research for Battle for the Wastelands.

Even YouTube can be a valuable source of information. I researched bayonet training and fighting for Battle for the Wastelands by watching WWII training films posted there. I also watched videos depicting the Spencer Rifle, the basis for the standard infantry weapon of my world, to see how the weapon was fired and what it sounded like.

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