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Research in Writing

Few things throw a reader out of a story faster than a detail that the author got wrong. Whether it’s a misused medical term, historical blunder, or a violation of the laws of physics, these mistakes can be dangerous pitfalls for novelists. That’s why many of us do a fair amount of research for our novels, to make sure that we get the details right.

Research is one of my favorite parts of the writing process. That might be because I’ve worked as a genetics researcher for over ten years, most recently in the field of next-generation DNA sequencing. A scientific background is useful in science fiction, but good speculative fiction requires knowledge of other disciplines as well, such as history, economics, agriculture, and medicine.

No author can be an expert in all of these. Fortunately, we live in an age when limitless information is available from the nearest computer. Google is the obvious starting point to answer many questions, but I can lose a whole day on Wikipedia. Just remember that the complete freedom of speech on the internet works both ways. There’s plenty of misinformation out there, too.

Talking to Experts

You can’t believe everything you read on the internet. Fortunately, you can often find a living, breathing expert on just about anything. In my Science in Sci-fi blog series, for example, I invite scientists, engineers, and other professionals to discuss their area of expertise as it applies to fiction. I’ve talked space travel with a rocket scientist, and debated the most likely zombie pathogen with a microbiologist. I even get to share my own expertise on genetics and the human genome.

No amount of reading can compare to a conversation with an actual expert in the subject area. Especially an expert who happens to be a fellow writer. Let’s face it, most writers in this modern age have day jobs. The diversity of skills and experience among my writing friends astonishes me. When you tap into the mind of the expert, you not only get solid information, but also the kind of nuance you won’t find by Wikipedia.

Research Beyond the Day Job

Sometimes the research that you need to do for your writing isn’t someone’s day job. When I’m writing fantasy, I need to know things like “how well would a rapier serve against an armored opponent?” This is a subject of some debate, and getting a definitive answer with my own research is difficult. Then a friend introduced me to someone who’s a Renaissance Faire actor. He had plenty to say on the subject!

(By the way, the short answer was “not very well”)

In my case, I’m a bow hunter, so you’ll often find my characters (1) carrying a bow, or (2) tromping through dense woods. Sometimes both at the same time! I think that having some real-world experience at archery makes those scenes more convincing. Many of the writers I know have unusual jobs or hobbies or backgrounds. I love seeing those details come up in their fiction.

Hobbies for Authors

A non-writing hobby is a valuable thing for the aspiring author. It might serve the writing itself, or simply help you keep your sanity through the endless cycles of waiting and rejection. It’s also a good excuse to get out of the chair, move around, and make some new friends. When your new hobby experiences inform your fiction, it’s hard to lose.

A last word of caution about research: don’t let it get in the way of the writing itself. I love getting caught in a Wikipedia tornado as much as anyone, but I also recognize that it doesn’t count as real writing. The same is true of character worksheets, outlines, mind-maps, and all of those other things that sometimes come easier than churning out prose. Putting words down on paper is the most important thing a writer can do.



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  1. Kes Trester on November 12, 2014 at 9:00 pm

    Great post, Dan! I’m curious: do you ever use science as simply a jumping off point in storytelling? I attended a panel at RT 2014 of sci-fi writers who were also PhDs and MDs. They all confessed to taking liberties with scientific principles for the sake of dramatic effect. It has freed me in my writing (my latest book’s protagonist is a science prodigy) and I’m wondering how you feel about drama vs truth.

  2. Dan Koboldt on November 13, 2014 at 10:42 am

    Thanks for the question, Kes! I don’t always use science as a starting-off point, but my WIP is an adult SF whose “speculative” element extrapolates on our current genetic engineering capabilities. In this case, the science came first, and the fiction came later.

    We scientists do take creative liberties, and I think it’s for a couple of reasons: (1) Because true, hard scientific principles are often very complex and not easily (or briefly) summarized, and (2) because it helps tell a more engaging story. The key, I think, is to balance the fiction with some tidbits of accurate hard science, to show the more knowledgeable readers that you know your stuff. If they see that, they’re less likely to nitpick.