May 16, 2012

A Little Knowledge Is a Dangerous Thing

Occasionally as I'm drifting off to sleep at night, I jolt awake thinking, "Did I fact-check that?" I always tell myself to stop thinking about it and go to sleep instead of getting up to do research, which invariably means that I lie awake worrying for longer than it would have taken to look it up.

A lot of facts go into a work of fiction. My novel takes place in the real United States in particular real cities at specific times. The basic rules of reality apply to the characters -- that is, my book doesn't involve magic, supernatural elements, warps in the fabric of time-space, or anything like that.

Into this real world setting, I'm putting fictional people and giving them a whole lot of fictional accessories: houses that don't exist, imaginary businesses, made-up books. Part of getting the reader to go along with the fiction is to make sure that wherever it touches the real world, it's consistent with what the reader knows.

For a blatant example, if the characters are all carrying cell phones in 1995 (or even more blatantly, in 1965), the reader is going to notice that inconsistency with the real known world. An unjustified anachronism like that isn't part of the fictional overlay of the story, it's an error. The reader will be at least distracted and perhaps moved to throw the book across the room and never pick it up again, depending on their tolerance level. I want to avoid that.

The actual examples are subtler, of course, but the problem is the same. What kept me awake last night was wondering if it's really reasonable to drive from the Grand Canyon to San Jose in one day. This occurs in the chapter I'm revising, and I supposed that I must have researched it when writing the previous draft, but I started to question whether it was realistic.

Some readers (of this post and eventually of the novel) will be familiar with the distance and recognize if I've made a factual error. More readers will be like me -- they haven't made the drive and have only a vague sense of the geography -- so they might accept whatever I present as truth, but they might just as well question it like I did. This is clearly a detail that I need to get right, and it's one of my easier research problems.

Google Maps puts the drive at twelve to thirteen hours. Okay, that's an achievable single long day of driving, but the story introduces additional factors. The characters are traveling in 1963, before the completion of the interstate highway system, so they might be on slower roads. If I needed to judge the driving time more precisely, I'd do more extensive research on the highways, but I can already rule out a one-day drive due to the other complication: the characters include two five-year-olds. A family with small children isn't going to willingly make that drive in a single day.

I'm a bit irritated with Past Me for writing the chapter this way so that now I have to change it, but it turns out it won't create a huge amount of upheaval to adjust the scenario. I even have a change in mind that might make the story better.

This isn't the first time I've found that needing to accommodate the constraints of the real world results in a solution that improves the story. I've encountered other writers talking about this phenomenon, too. It's pretty cool when it happens.

All of this brings up the issue of when in the writing process to do research. It's easy to put a ton of time into research before or during a first draft and then discover in revision that many of the researched elements are no longer needed. For that reason, it can be better to save detailed research until later, when you know what's staying in the story. But then you run into situations like this where you've written a factual error into the events of the plot, and the fix is more complicated than changing a few words. Though as I said, these fixes can lead to good improvements. So I don't have a good answer about when to do research, except that you should definitely not get so caught up in research that you avoid writing altogether.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kathryn Schulz describes her night owl habits in an essay on Writing in the Dark: "Mostly, though, I stay up to write. I started doing so in earnest in college, when almost everyone stays up to write--to the dismay of the remaining few, a.k.a. the roommates. Half my memories of those years are bathed in the blue glow of a computer, illuminating an otherwise dark room."

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

If a pot of gold was awaiting this family, otherwise two days is (or are) more reasonable and wouldn't flat-line the ebrows. Of course you make a good point, truth wins out always and better to be right.

Lisa Eckstein said...

Anonymous, you do point out something else worth mentioning: Depending on the needs of the story, in a situation like this you can either constrain the character actions to the natural real-world behavior, or you can create compelling enough stakes to motivate the characters into extreme feats.

Anna Scott Graham said...

I've pondered similar ideas at not the most opportune times; why is night such a moment for these? I tend to research as I go along, unless the plot requires more background than something sorted on the fly. As we've talked before, I can't imagine writing without the internet at my immediate disposal. How else would we know just how long it takes to drive from San Jose to the Grand Canyon??? :)))

Henri said...

"needing to accommodate the constraints of the real world results in a solution that improves the story"

I have a parallel experience as a cryptic crossword constructor. I might labor at writing a clue for a long time, come up with something, and then be told by my co-constructor that for one reason or another the clue doesn't work and I need to start from scratch. It's not uncommon that the resulting clue is vastly better, and I wonder why I didn't think of the new version first.

Lisa Eckstein said...

Anna: It really seems impossible to imagine researching a novel in an era when the information was so much harder to come by. Maybe that's where the advice to "write what you know" comes from?

Henri: Cool that you've had this experience in your own creative work. I guess it demonstrates how first ideas aren't always the best ones. If you had to throw out all your clues and write new ones, the resulting puzzle would probably be better -- but you have a deadline to meet!

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