Monday, October 5, 2009

On Being Detail-Oriented

One of the things I always tell people is that I'm very "detail-oriented."

For my fiction, this means that I research things almost constantly. I have a "Russian"* character in CALLARION AT NIGHT, so I looked up Russian speech patterns; recently I found a resource on writing the Irish accent without using dialect (needed for another character). I have books on architecture, weapons, Nazi thought, numerous printouts of baby names from various cultures, etc.

I also know the exact mph of a horse at a walk, trot, canter, and gallop -- information I used to calculate the distance between the cities of Haldor (the world of SON OF MAGIC). And did you know that the average person's walking speed is 2 to 3 miles per hour? That's another random tidbit of information you can use to calculate distance.

All of this translates (I hope) into stories with as few holes in the background as possible. I'm not a fan of the practice of "making it up" if you don't know it. Mostly because there's always someone out there who's going to call you on any bit of information you get wrong, no matter how small. This is why writing historical fiction is so hard. You have to get things dead-on accurate for your period or else the story doesn't work.

Same goes for any part of a fantasy/sci-fi story where you pull something from reality. It has to be accurate or it doesn't ring as factual, with the end result being you lost the reader. Probably the worst thing that can happen to a storyteller.

So, dear readers, I told you some of the research I've gathered. Now it's your turn. What's the weirdest tidbit you've ever had to look up for a story?

* The character isn't Russian per se, but he's from a country that's heavily based on Russia.


L. T. Host said...

I feel EXACTLY the same way, Matt. My last novel was Fantasy set in the 4th century AD Roman/ Germanic Europe. I did a ton of research before picking my timeline and location, essentially to make sure that my story really could happen, if there were actually wizards, etc. of course. It was really fascinating to do.

As for the weirdest tidbit for that one, that was looking up when mead was invented and what types of foods my characters would have had access to, to make sure I was correct. For my new book, it's been the hardest and weirdest researching the racial mindset, including the inner workings of a popular racial sect.

Davin Malasarn said...

I always admire people who do there research thoroughly. I try to get my facts accurate also, but for me, it's a painful process. Recently, the one fact I had to look up was body decomposition rates. I had a character who had died, and the family was rushing his cremation. Since the religious ceremony required that his body be viewed, I had to figure out how decomposed he would be after three months.

Joshua McCune said...

Good post.

The internet has definitely been a boon to me. Though my recent WIP is pretty research-less (except for a coin), a couple of my previous attempts were in historical fiction (Roman Era) and definitely had to get that down. Don't want to annoy the legions, so to speak.

That being said, one of the most common errors, research-wise, I've heard of relates to common settings (e.g., an author's from Houston, TX, but uses LA as a setting and gets details a bit off here and there b/c of lack of familiarity w/ the area -- stick w/ what you know, if possible, I guess).

Susan R. Mills said...

I had to research police dogs. Did you know that yellow labs make great ones? I didn't. I'm also a detail person. Like you,I tend to research a lot. Good thing I enjoy it.

Matthew Delman said...

Bane --

I always ask people who live/have lived in areas for tips when the place I'm writing in actually exists. I've avoided having to do that thus because I write fantasy, but I actually did ask a friend who's an Arizona native to critique my descriptions of a high desert.

Joshua McCune said...

--yeah, fantasy does give us a wee bit more leeway, but, as you've stated and done, you've still got to provide verisimilitude to your world.

PS - Adam Heine just did a post on Steampunk... Thought you might be interested.

Laura Martone said...

Very timely post for me. I'm extremely detail-oriented. Probably helps to explain why it's taken me nearly a decade to research and write my novel. For the underground town in my story, I drew detailed maps and created detailed census records, with every villager's origin (if not Ruby Hollow), physical features, jobs in the town, children, grandchildren, etc.

My novel isn't fantasy, but it does span a bit of time, so I've even been nerdy enough to look up almanac records to make sure that it rained on a particular day. Yeah, sick, I know.

My problem is that so many of my details have ended up in the novel, so I have yet to learn the advice that 100 pages of research equals 1 page of narrative. What can I say? I'm a slow learner.

Natalie said...

I did quite a bit of research on steel mill accidents and bank robberies. I'm not a big researcher in general but these two things were pertinent to my story so I had to buckle down and read up.

Adam Heine said...

I'm always getting caught up in random research. Like when I researched free-fall speeds from various heights to determine exactly how much action could occur between two characters falling from an airship, before they hit the ocean below.

Such a waste of time, but such cool information to know :-)

Stephanie Thornton said...

I'm constantly doing research too. It's a darn good thing I love Egypt so much!

As for the weirdest thing, I was actually going to post about this at my blog, shortly, but I'll spill the beans here and elaborate later. :)

I had to research ancient Egyptian contraceptives. It turns out the most common one was a suppository of crocodile dung used by women. Yes, I'm serious.