Explaining research to a non-writer

Every time a feature film set in the past is released, it doesn’t take long for the press to start finding research gaffes from minor stuff like cars on the street before they were made, songs being sung before they were released, and then major problems such as battles being fought in the wrong country and world leaders showing up after they were dead.

It’s hard to explain how such things happen to our readers and viewers. Hollywood, of course, is more of a problem because so many people are involved with each production. Major authors have multiple editors and fact checkers. Small press authors usually have to roll their own research and hope for the best.

When authors write novels, they are primarily concerned with the storyline and the characters. Yet, as one writes, there are dozens of things to check:

  • The characters, such as my protagonist in Fate’s Arrows drive cars. Okay, what makes were they and when were they available?
  • My protagonist is an archer. What kind of bow did she use  and what kind of damage would an arrow inflict when it hit a person?
  • My protagonist, Pollyanna, was a Marine who learned Karate in Okinawa like a lot of other soldiers at the end of WWII. So, what techniques will she use when attacked back in the states?
  • Most people know little or nothing about the Korean War. Fortunately, I had a good source book and that allowed my character to mention things that happened, along with the exploits of the forerunner of the CIA.
  • In the novel, she’s auditing the books of a small grocery. Fine. What products are in the store?
  • And since the KKK is involved–this is Florida in 1954–that means reading more about that group than anyone would want to.

Basically, if somebody coughs in your novel and grabs for a bottle of cough medicine, you have to find out whether that cough medicine even existed when the novel was set.

If you were around at the time and place your novel is set, you can’t even rely on your memory.  Most people don’t remember nitty gritty specifics. They know they grew up listening to a song on the radio, but do they know what date it was released? Probably not.

When we write our novels, everything is open to question even though we’re writing fiction.

Malcolm