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  1. Magus

    Magus Member

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    Research and the Suspension of Disbelief

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by Magus, Nov 27, 2018.

    How far do you research the period you're about to throw a made up character into? It seems like another one of those writers traps that threaten to slay the aspiring writer before they put pen to paper, or in our case, finger to key.

    But it's also an exciting part of the process no doubt, when you finally find that perfect time and place to write a story. So my question is a broad one I'm aware but how much time do you spend researching your setting, and how much do you rely on your reader suspending their disbelief?
     
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  2. ITBA01

    ITBA01 Active Member

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    I guess it would depend on the time, and the location. For some periods of history, we don't have a lot of information, so it probably wouldn't take too long to research, and you'll have to fill in some of the gaps yourself. If you're talking about more recent history, I'd say some of the more important things to focus on would be the technology level, culture, and speech (authentic dialogue can make all the difference). Depending on what the story is about, you may find yourself having to do more research. For example, if your story is about a historical war, it would probably be best to understand why the war is happening, and the relations between different countries.

    Of course, you shouldn't completely pause writing for research, as there will always be more things to learn. I can't say what the exact right balance is, as it's something I'm trying to figure out myself, but I think it's probably different for every person. I guess just find what works for you.
     
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  3. Cave Troll

    Cave Troll Contributor Contributor

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    For my main WIP I can't, since it takes place in the future.
    How do you research something that doesn't yet exist?
     
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  4. Magus

    Magus Member

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    I think that's why a lot of people start off writing fantasy or sci fi. Readers go in with their disbelief already suspended so you feel free to just write. But then the problem of world building crashes down on you and you end up having to pull from history for inspiration anyhow. Initially it's easier to be able to just make up some name for a village, or city, or miracle device; but I think in the end it becomes a bigger undertaking.
     
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  5. Magus

    Magus Member

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    Isn't that the most hated answer for every damn question. I wish it were as simple as asking an NPC in an RPG how to equip something.

    "It's simple! To use your firebolt, first open the menu with X. Then Equip the Red Materia into your Materia slot!"
     
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  6. Cave Troll

    Cave Troll Contributor Contributor

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    True, but you can fabricate history as well. :p
     
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  7. Rzero

    Rzero Member

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    I recently read Stephen King's On Writing. I'm not really interested in "how to" manuals, but I was curious about his process. It was enlightening. Anyway, he says to write the story you want to write, and then fact check for your second draft. It sounds like good advice to me, though a certain amount of research into a time and place could be fun, and more importantly, inspiring. I would say, do as much research as you need to get started, especially if you don't know much about the setting, and leave the detail work for later to avoid the exact sort of trap you mentioned. As a class A procrastinator with gobs of ADD, falling down a wiki-hole is the exact sort of thing that keeps me from writing a lot of nights. (Another is this forum. :p)
     
    Last edited: Dec 6, 2018 at 6:25 AM
  8. Christopher Walker

    Christopher Walker New Member

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    Getting the broad details about an historical period is important, but there's only so deep one can get before the storytelling gets swamped. If a writer wants their story to be set in a certain era there should be a good a reason for it, or else they're just making their life harder for little purpose or reward.

    If you're a history buff who enjoys the research, or there is a personal significance to the story you want to tell, then by all means go for it. But you should also ask yourself, how much of my research will really end up on the page, and how much does the reader want or need to know?
     
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  9. Kallisto

    Kallisto Ruler of the world... somewhere...

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    I would suggest spending as much time as possible researching the setting. I would suggest researching before you begin and continuing to research throughout the writing and revising processes. Does this mean you'll be using everything? No. But what I found is that when in doubt, use real life. So, when I'm stuck with writer's block, I just look at what happened in real life in similar situations and see if I can't adapt that.
     
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  10. Stormsong07

    Stormsong07 Contributor Contributor

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    I research as I go along. My novel is set in a medieval-fantasy type period, so most of my technologies are taken from medieval Europe. But I write, and then when I come to a scene where I need more detail, I pause and look it up. For example, my MC's father is the miller of their village, so I researched medieval mills and how they work and what to call each part. Then later, when she had to stop by the laundry at this big sprawling fort, I researched medieval laundry techniques so I could better imagine what she'd be seeing and smelling when she entered the room. But I don't do exhaustive entire-world research prior to writing- only the specific details I need as I move along with my story.
     
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  11. jannert

    jannert Member Supporter Contributor

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    My own experience is that research into a specific time and/or place does NOT hamstring your story. Instead, it gives you ideas you wouldn't have had otherwise.

    It also helps to immerse you into the settings themselves. If, as @Stormsong07 mentioned, you need your character to do laundry, it can really help your vision of the story if you know how laundry got done in that time and place.

    If you're writing fantasy based on historical time periods, then you don't need to worry about historical accuracy. Instead it's just the flavour of the situation that you'll be seeking. But the more complex the flavours are, the more interesting the story will be. So don't be afraid of research before you even start writing. Do a lot of it. Then, obviously, do more on a need to know basis when it comes to specific incidents and details.

    My own take on writing stories set in ACTUAL locations during actual time periods is to be as accurate as you can be. If a reader of historical fiction—who enjoys that period of history and is familiar with it—sees lots of inaccuracies in your story, it will colour how they feel about the story and you as a writer. Nice story, but not very believable, at best. Throw the book across the room in frustration, at worst.

    It's like almost any other thing we do in life. Accuracy counts. It rarely counts against us.

    If you don't have the stomach for doing research, and would rather just handwave details and make stuff up, then write fantasy! Lots of great writers do.
     
    Last edited: Dec 6, 2018 at 9:02 PM
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  12. jannert

    jannert Member Supporter Contributor

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    I reckon you just think hard. And research possiblities as they come to you. What if we lived on other planets? What if the world as we know it has changed completely and most of it is flooded? What if we found a way to make ourselves nearly immortal through the ability to replace any of our body parts that pack in?

    If your characters are human, as humans are now, and haven't biologically changed, then a great change in their environment will impact on them. That's where research can help. How is their health affected by things like low gravity in space? Or finding a planet where the gravity is greater than that of Earth? How do we feed ourselves if most of our arable land is under water? Who controls the food sources? Are we still a society that tries to work for the common good, or have we fragmented back into isolated family groups, like cave dwellers were?

    You think your way through these issues, and think 'how did we get there from here?' Then carry on.
     
  13. jannert

    jannert Member Supporter Contributor

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    I really like what you're saying here, especially that research can be inspiring. Totally believe that. Without research, you are more or less stuck with what you already know. There is a lot out there that each individual does NOT know. So research broadens that horizon and can give you ideas you wouldn't otherwise have.

    However, if you're attempting to write historical fiction, I wouldn't just wing it at first and check details later. Yikes. So many things can go wrong with that one. Just an example. If I set my story in a certain era (because I just like that era) and want my characters to travel by train, I'll need to know whether train journeys were actually possible during the period I'm using for the story, and also make sure that trains actually went to the locations I'm using. Otherwise I'll make a complete arse of it, and may have to change huge portions of my story to accomodate my mistake.

    Not checking basic details before writing can mean HUGE plot holes. And if you just say 'well, I'll just change the dates then,' that's fine. But a change of date can impact on other aspects of the story. As one writer friend said once, "You end up pulling the single thread that unravels the whole piece."

    I maintain that if meticulous research isn't your thing, then don't write historical fiction. You can write fantasy loosely based on a period of history, and nobody is going to mind if the details don't quite match reality. But if you market it as a historical piece, set in a certain time and place, it really needs to be well-researched. Otherwise it won't hold up to the scrutiny it will get from readers of history and historical fiction who read to learn, as well as for enjoyment.
     
    Last edited: Dec 6, 2018 at 9:21 AM
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  14. The Dapper Hooligan

    The Dapper Hooligan Member Supporter Contributor

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    That depends on what I'm writing. If my target market is hardcore history nerds and the story is based on or around well documented military campaigns, then all of the research and then some. If I'm throwing together some courtly love story for harlequin romance buffs, then it would probably be mostly fashion, music and some politics, making sure I maintain some sense of historical accuracy as I go. Geography is also something that's important to keep track of, because while the average reader won't pay much mind to the what type of shoes most peasants preferred in 1277, or the style of sword Harold Bluetooth used, most figure out that going from Segovia to Edinburgh would probably be more than a day trip for William The Conqueror.
     
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  15. The Dapper Hooligan

    The Dapper Hooligan Member Supporter Contributor

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    Not only is the [time] continuum like a human body, it is also very like a piece of badly put up wallpaper. Push down a bubble somewhere, another one pops up somewhere else.
    - Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.
     
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  16. jannert

    jannert Member Supporter Contributor

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    In general, I agree with you. However, if your character living in 1277 wears a different kind of shoe from what I'm used to, it would be a wonderful little story bonus if we found out how that impacts on him. Does it mean his feet get wet when he's slogging through the bog? Does it mean it takes him an hour to get them fastened? Does it mean he only has access to one pair for years, which means he either has finished growing his feet (he's an older person) or they are designed to accomodate growing feet, or he simply wears them and the pinching makes walking uncomfortable and eventually deforms his toes? All of these things WILL IMPACT on your character and will enrich the story.

    These kinds of details make us feel as if we are there. This isn't pandering to nerds at all. Pull these details smoothly into your story, without going on about the history of shoes (which IS nerdy) and we won't even notice that you've given us some interesting information. Instead, we'll be worrying about our character's sore feet, which means he won't be able to run at any great speed for any distance. So when the enemies start chasing him, he's in a bit of a pickle. (Which he probably wouldn't be, if this was a modern tale and he was wearing Nike running shoes. Details do matter.)
     
    Last edited: Dec 6, 2018 at 9:03 PM
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  17. The Dapper Hooligan

    The Dapper Hooligan Member Supporter Contributor

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    I actually find medieval shoe history rather interesting. Like did you know that after the Black Plague, the need for manual labour was so great that the peasants found themselves in a buyers market, thereby redistributing wealth so greatly that the peasantry found themselves in a relatively superior position. One of the side effects of this was ridiculous and extravagant footwear. Some shoes were so long and impractical, the wearer had to tie the tip of the toe to their calf just to be able to walk in them. Henry the 4th even enacted laws limiting the length of a persons shoes to be in line with their god given social status. Partly in an effort to limit upward social mobility and maintain the status quo, and also partly because apparently he just really hated the style.

    ETA: But from experience, for the most part, very few people care, and there are some that will argue the facts on you because movies have taught us that peasants were poor, oppressed and wore only brown, filthy rags, and could only afford to wrap cloth around their feet.
     
  18. jannert

    jannert Member Supporter Contributor

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    My point is not so much that they are interesting facts which engross the reader, but that these conditions would impact on the characters. That's what I mean about details mattering.

    How would you cope with having the toe of your shoe tied to your calf? And would this mean your social class would be obvious? Or that you were striving to ape a social class you didn't belong to? That would certainly mean you wouldn't be just walking around as you do today, wearing loafers or whatever. Ditto some poor folks having to tie rags around their feet because they didn't have shoes. What would that be like in cold or wet weather? Or on stony ground? And maybe they struggled to find rags, as they weren't all that easy to come by either—as poor people tended to wear things till they fell apart.

    During most periods of history, cobblers made a pair of shoes that were identical to each other. Meaning there was no left foot and right foot. (Which seems a bit daft, actually. Surely somebody would have noticed that feet tend to be opposite shapes from each other. Maybe some smart cobblers did, but it was harder to make these, so most didn't bother?) How would that feel on your feet, I wonder? If the shoes were long enough that this sameness of shape didn't interfere with your toes, you'd end up tripping over them, wouldn't you? And if they were short, or narrow ...yeowtch.

    The thing is, if an author is unconcerned about these kinds of details, they are quite likely to create a generic story, using only preconceptions about the period, rather than discovering what life was actually like for people who lived 'back then.'

    Yeah, I reckon these details matter.
     
    Last edited: Dec 6, 2018 at 10:12 AM
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  19. Lew

    Lew Contributor Contributor

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    I think the general gist of this thread is that, yes, research matters, more in some stories than others. My goal in writing historical fiction is to put the reader in a time machine and take him/her back to that period, and let them experience it as it was, as well as I can recreate it. On the other hand, research is a lot like fantasy world building: much of it will be for you the author to pick selective facts, not a mountain of information to dump on your reader. Some of the things that wind up being important: cities, their size, relations with other cities; time it takes to go from place to place, by ship, by small boat, by horse, on foot; diseases, injuries and medical care available; various religions, and a quick synopsis of their belief systems; technologies of ships, weapons, plumbing; how fires were started; lighting. Just a few snippets of these can help create believable settings.

    Above all, avoid projecting modern preconceptions onto the past: "The Romans were brutal slave masters who abused their servants, fed them to the lions if they didn't behave." "peasants were ignorant and oppressed, yearning to be free like modern society." "no place for women in the ancient world." "All ships of the classical era were galleys rowed by slaves." "religions existed to impose threats of eternal punishment on peasants for defying the rulers."

    It helps, for literate societies like the Romans, Greeks, Arabs and Chinese, to read what they had to say about themselves, without a modern middleman interpreter: Tacitus, Pliny, Plato, Aristotle, Sun Tzu, Confucius, etc.

    Remember that the reader of historical fiction probably knows the subject, which is why they read it (my reason), and inaccuracies or modern projections on the past cause me to lose interest really fast.

    @K McIntyre is writing her third book. Set in WWII, protag is an American VA doctor who joins the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1939 as a doctor. He will see WWII from the British side, through American eyes. He will be assigned to the 51st Highland Regiment because :a) they were actually fitting out in Aldershot for deployment with the BEF while he was going through training there in Jan 1940 and b) they didn't evacuate via Dunkirk in May/June of 1940, but had to use a southern "rat line" via southern France and Spain to get back to the UK. Her research turned up these interesting tidbits which both make for a realistic setting, and also something unusual: most people have never heard of the southern ratline. And we visited the RAMC museum last year in Aldershot, and learned the organization of a RAMC field hospital, that the medical facilities, called a "brick" for some reason, came shore 24 hours after an amphibious assault. And she has an RAMC advisor from the museum to guide her in details.

    She also has a research rabbit hole that absorbs a lot of writing time!
     
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  20. LoaDyron

    LoaDyron Member

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    Research is the key here my friend. How can you create something if you don't know what time happens in your story :)? You have to get inspiration somewhere, or if you building in a real world, you have to have an idea of how works the country you are writing. I would say spend the time you need in your research, make notes or copy paste that information and explore it at your taste. Then take some ideas and write what you found interesting about that culture, can simply be a detail about their philosophy. Don't be afraid to experiment stuff, the risk is always on the table, and the more you risk and write more the answer is going to be found :)
     
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  21. making tracks

    making tracks Active Member

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    I think the research angle has pretty much been answered here. I agree that if I'm reading about an era I know a bit about it would irritate me if there were glaring wrong facts, but equally I like a good story and I think a bit of poetic license is ok - as long as it's intentional and not just oversight. I also agree with @jannert that details that wouldn't have occurred to me, like shoes, would make me feel far more immersed in the story.

    One of the things I really like about some historical fiction I've read is that it has grabbed my interest and made me want to find out more about a period I knew nothing about before. 'Burial Rites' by Hannah Kent is set in 1800s Iceland and was an area and period I knew nothing about, but I was hooked by the whole atmosphere. As a teenager I also really enjoyed 'Random Acts of Heroic Love' by Danny Scheinmann, half of which is set during the First World War and got me interested in learning more about the Russian Revolution. So basically, if you do it well, you can really get people thinking about history in a way they might not have before, because you can humanise it and make it relevant.
     
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  22. The Dapper Hooligan

    The Dapper Hooligan Member Supporter Contributor

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    But the important thing is that I had an onion on my belt...
     
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  23. Iain Aschendale

    Iain Aschendale hostis humani generis Contributor

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    I would say research as much as you can stand, but then remember what to leave out. I've read a historical fiction book or two where it seemed to me that the writer was just showing off how much they knew about the period in question, but at the expense of the story. If Marie Antoinette is incapable of throwing on her clothes without servants, that affects the story. Are the servants there or not, are they experienced or not, stuff like that. However, if Mozart is capable of dressing himself and in a hurry to get somewhere, do I really need to know of what design and material his underclothes (if any) are, and whether his shoes are slip-ons, laced, or buttoned? If he doesn't notice it, the reader probably doesn't need to either, except possibly in passing.
     
  24. Iain Aschendale

    Iain Aschendale hostis humani generis Contributor

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    ... which was the style at the time. They didn't have any white onions, because of the war....
     
  25. jannert

    jannert Member Supporter Contributor

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    I think the trick is to use research to achieve immersion for the writer. If the writer feels immersed in a time period, then that immersion will transmute to the reader.

    The more detailed research a writer does, the more this writer will be able to understand what living in a historical period was like. And yes, it's a huge mistake to dump tons of irrelevant detail on the reader, just because the writer knows about it. But the difference between jumping out of bed and throwing clothes on in a minute or so, as we do today, and getting out of bed surrounded by servants, who have to take the time to put on layers of clothing and tie everything in the back? That matters.

    If, as a writer, you know what getting dressed was like, back in the 18th century, you won't make the mistake of having Marie Antoinette leap out of bed, jump into her clothes, and run downstairs for breakfast. If you get the details right, the reader will feel transported to another time and place. Presumably that's the point of choosing a historical setting for a novel?
     
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