Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Know your Stuff

Or just lie convincingly...

Recently I was reading a book on the year 2012, what that year means, ect. I was actually just getting interested in what the author had to say when she wrote: "Over two millennia After the Death of Christ." I get it, really I do: you're trying to figure out a more creative way to say the year. Why not write out AD? However, AD is “Latin for Year of our Lord Jesus Christ,” not After Death. It's a common mistake that people make all the time. Had this been a high school paper, or a random post on the internet, I might have just moved past it. This book was written by a supposed historian. Shouldn't a historian know what AD means? With this "small mistake," She discredited herself, and made me wonder if any of her facts were accurately researched.

This is a just a brief example of "knowing your stuff." If you don't know something, research it.... or cheat. Cheat? you ask. I know you've been taught not to cheat, but I don't mean that kind of cheating. A cheat would be working the story around so it’s not obvious that you don’t know a certain piece of information.

Example: She loaded an arrow into the crossbow, and took aim.

I feel like playing "what's wrong with this sentence, fantasy style." ;) The sentence itself is perfectly fine. Except, Crossbows don't fire arrows, they fire bolts or, occasionally, quarrels. So you could easily fix this sentence with:

She loaded a bolt into the crossbow, and took aim.

What's wrong with this sentence? Nothing, but as a writer you want to make sure your reader is completely immersed in the story. Unless you have explained what a bolt is, which could be superfluous in a story, it might be best just to cheat the sentence. How would that work?

She loaded the crossbow, and took aim.

Completely eliminating the name of the projectile, the author avoids looking stupid if they use ‘arrow,’ and the reader doesn't get confused if s/he doesn't know what a bolt is.

This is a pretty simple example, but you can see how a cheat would make it much simpler. All this to say, don't assume your audience doesn't know anything. If you do explain what a bolt is, don't do it blatantly. To sit and narrate an explanation could easily sound patronizing. We will talk about how to avoid this later.

The point is, in any story, you are going to have things you don't know. That's where research comes in. Research can look like many things.

Creative Research

My favorite kind of research involves watching tv, reading books, and even playing around on wikipedia. Through these outlets you find the jargon you need for your book, inspiration, and things to avoid. If you're writing a civil war book, watch civil war movies or go to a history museum. If you're writing fantasy, well, I consider playing Rappelz to be research, but I think that's just me procrastinating. In a couple weeks, I'm going to be going to the Extreme Mammals exhibit in San Francisco. I consider that creative research. Why? Because I write mostly speculative. Strange creatures are a part of that. Field trips like this are great for getting ideas, and learning random facts you might need later on.

Real Research


This can be the not-so-fun research, but it can double as schoolwork. The last three research papers I wrote, I chose something I could use later. I was writing about a girls with PTSD, Post-traumatic Stress, so when I had to pick my research paper for health class, that's what I chose. When I had to write a research paper centered on food, I wrote about how authors use food in fiction. Not only will you be interested in your paper, but you will glean information you will need later.

Read medical papers. Watch documentaries. Read local newspapers about a town your story is set in. Sure, the town may only have 2,000 people, but that's 2,000 people who will love your book because it portrays their town accurately. If it's incorrect, they will be annoyed with the inconsistencies.

Most of these are long, preplanned research, sometimes you are in the middle of a sentence, and you have no idea what something is called. Use your best guess, change the font to another color so you don't forget, and keep writing. If you're in the middle of a creative flow, don't stop! If you hop on the internet right then and there, you could get distracted and stop writing. Friends are great for this kind of thing too. Know your friends areas of knowledge, shoot them and email, text, or remember to ask them about it next time you see them.

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