I read an interesting post last week by K.M. Weiland on her Wordplay blog that touched upon a subject I struggle with. Her article, Research: When in Doubt, Make It Up discusses the writer’s responsibility to accurately portray the worlds in their stories and how sometimes it’s necessary to fake what you don’t know. Her take on the topic was fascinating, but it left me with a question that has haunted me from the very first day I sat down to write a book.
How much time, effort, and expense can an unpublished writer afford to devote toward researching details in their novel? Nowadays there is a ton of technical data a keystroke away on-line thanks to Google and Wikipedia, and the local libraries are still a wealthy source of information, but for me the one aspect of writing that is hard to pull out of a book or webpage, is setting. Nothing quite replaces describing a location where you have personally stood. The subtle way the lighting influences your vision, the innocuous sounds and smells that surround you, these are finer points you pick up by actually being in that place. But is it worth it to travel there just to add a touch of realism to your story?
My first novel had settings in Panama City Florida, Atlanta Georgia, Greenville South Carolina, and another small town in SC. I used to live in Atlanta, so I felt I had that covered, but I had never been to the cities in South Carolina and I had only been to Panama City a couple times, many many years ago. What was I to do? I had two choices. Book a costly trip to the cities in question, or do what K.M Weiland suggested…make it up.
If I was already a published author working on my second or third novel, I would have booked the trip. But the word ‘aspiring’ still precedes my label and it’s hard to justify spending money on a dream, no matter how firmly you believe in it. In the back of your mind a piece of you is whispering, “It’s like the old business axiom…you have to spend money to make money.” It’s tempting to believe, but the hard truth is that no matter how much money you spend on research, if your query letter sucks it won’t matter how realistic your story sounds.
Something else the business world teaches us is that there has to be a solid ROI (Return on Investment) before anybody will sink resources into a project. But I don’t think that way, none of us do, we’re writers after all. How much time and effort have we put into our stories already with only a glimmer of hope for publication? Why should research be any different?
What’s your take? How important is research, especially when there is a monetary cost associated?