Lacking Research, Lacking Story

Fantasy and science fiction are my two favorite genres of storytelling whether those stories are told through the written word or through film. Part of my favoritism is due to my use of books, TV series, and movies as a means to escape from my everyday world with all its stresses and mundanity. But another part of my favoritism is due to the fact that within fiction, most real-world stories that I am interested in reading fail to create characters, settings, and communities that I find believable. They are an outsider’s impressions looking in and creating stereotypes and over-simplified cause and effect. This is why one common piece of advice for writers is to write what you know.

I was recently reading a story by an amateur writer who knew little to nothing of her subject matter. The story was a romance set in a zoo (I usually cringe away from romances, but with my background in wildlife biology and environmental education, a zoo story sounded like a worthwhile read). Unfortunately, the romance portion seemed to be the only thing on which the writer had focused her energies. She failed to do even basic research into safety procedures, zookeeper duties, or basic physiology, life history, and habitat requirements of mentioned animals. What made matters worse was that she deliberately chose to make her protagonists ignorant of any of this species information that would be a requirement for them to hold a position as a zookeeper. Such mistakes left the entire story riddled with distractions that pulled attention away from the plot.

Most serious writers would not make such glaringly obvious mistakes as this amateur did. However, there are issues that arise when a writer decides to gloss over minor details. I’ve found my concentration launched out of historical fiction novels by seemingly tiny mistakes regarding things like horse tack and care or what goods are commonplace versus luxury/high end. Issues I encounter in more modern tales include a supporting or background character becoming flat and stereotypical because the author needs them to fill a position they know little about… such as a park ranger in a road trip bonding story or a farmer in a small town horror novel. Regarding the first job example, there are a whole slue of college degrees a person can earn in order to qualify for such a position. With the second job, agriculture is a multi-billion dollar industry with vast amounts of research and supporting goods and services to help farmers feed the world’s population. Neither position should invoke stereotypes or ideas of ignorant, backward thinking rural folk. (Case in point, I have cousins who named their original barn cats after Irish folk-heroes from Ireland’s fight against British rule and their farm dogs were named after symphony conductors.)

Many writers will conduct extensive research on topics that hold significant influence on the plotline of their stories. Anything to do with their protagonists, settings, villains (both human or faceless), processes, etc that must work in a certain way to make the story work gets more than its fair share of attention. But the minor elements that only show up in passing are the things where research slips through the cracks. It’s these areas where I would encourage writers to write what you know. If you need a witness to a crime or a local to recommend a diner, use an analogue you know. Don’t make your writing process harder than it needs to be. If you don’t have the time or desire to research background information for a minor element (be it character- or setting-related), then choose something you are already familiar with rather than creating more stereotypes or predictable tropes in your story.

Sorry if this post seems kind of harsh, but the quality of your writing is within your hands. The work you put into anything determines the quality you get as a result. If you intend to take your writing seriously, then treat your writing process (including research) seriously too.


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