Research, the Key to Beliavability
By Steven A. Guglich
What makes a good story other than the story itself? There are many answers to that question. There are great characters that we can identify with or characters that are so interesting that we hunger to learn more about them and see their transformation from the beginning of the story through to the end. There are great moments of revelation and incidents that change everything we thought we knew. I’m sure we can name some others, but there is one particular one that can make it or break it for me. Believability! Believability? In a fiction story? Fantasy and science fiction, believable? Yes! When we read a story and become immersed in this amazing new world, there are shadows of overlap between our world and the new one we are reading. Swords still pierce flesh, wind still powers the sails of a boat, and war still affects those ravaged by it. The list of conventions that parallels worlds goes on. And, by the off chance that something works differently in that world, than it does in ours, then the author needs to have a pretty good explanation as to why it’s different.
Sadly, there is this prevailing notion among some writers that if their story is good enough, the facts and accuracy don’t have to be! I do not fall into that category of writers. I believe the story has to be airtight. Why? Author Ted Dekker explains it well. In fact, he coined a phrase just to describe it; The Fictive Bubble. In his blog article, “The Four Deadly Mistakes Fiction Writers Make”, Ted Dekker explains The Fictive Bubble. “I’ve distilled the simplicity of powerful storytelling into what I call the four pillars of fiction—it all begins with drawing yourself and your reader into what I call the Fictive Bubble. Think of it like a large soap bubble. That bubble is your story world and everything that happens there, regardless of genre. Your first objective is to pull a reader into it, where they will take an incredible journey with your characters. Your second objective is to keep the reader there, in that bubble.”
Dekker goes on to say that you must be absolutely careful, as an author, to never breach that bubble for your reader. The second you do, you have potentially lost a reader. The Fictive Bubble exists to keep the reader in your world, nothing you do as a writer should ever pull the reader out of that world. And lack of research and faulty understanding of how things work can surely pop that fictive bubble for the reader. There is nothing worse than reading a good book and coming half way through and finding an aspect of the story that just doesn’t make sense – that just isn’t believable. It takes you out of the story. It causes you to wonder, what was this person thinking? For some, it even causes them to rationalize why a good writer might make that mistake.
I use this same philosophy in my own writing. For every ‘fact’ that makes its way into The Veil Saga, there are ten more that stand behind it. Not every fact finds a place within the work, but each one provides me with an option. A possibility. For example, in The Veil Saga, the enchanted races that are hidden by the Veil have had some contact with humans prior to the Veil being erected. The dweorg heavily influenced the Norse culture, while elves heavily influenced the ancient Hebrews, Egyptians, and Greeks. I had to research the origins and aspects of those cultures and then decide how the races influenced one another to become the myths, legends, and mysteries that we know today.
In an interview with Jake Parrick, author of Atlantis Rising: Book 1 of The Atlantis Project, he said, “As authors we should know and understand every facet of our stories. If you have a blacksmith in your story you should understand the basics of how steel is made and how it’s forged. If you have sailing ships in your story, then you should understand how sailing works. You don’t need to be an expert on the subject, but you should know the difference between a foremast and a mizzen mast. The difference between a topsail and a topgallant sail. You may never use it, but what if your main character decides to climb the mast? What mast did he climb? How high up did he go? Did he stop at the topgallant? Or did he go all the way up to the royal? Your reader may not know the difference but by knowing it yourself you are proving to your reader that you know what you’re talking about. If you can prove that you know what you’re talking about with the real things, then it makes it easier for them to suspend their disbelief on the fake things.”
The trap authors must avoid when providing the details to make their story believable is providing too much detail. Just because you, as the author, have been diligent in doing your research on a topic for your story, it doesn’t mean you have to go into intricate and exhaustive details. As a writer, we have to use what we know to show things about the world or about the characters that live in that world. We don’t have to flaunt superior intellect and go on for pages about the intricacies of how a blacksmith turns an ordinary piece of steel into a beautiful, razor sharp short sword. If you have a scene in your story about the creation of such a sword, you need to decide what your readers need to know about the process? How important is it that your readers know how the sword is made? Do you need to explain that the most important part of the process is the tempering? No. But you need to be sure that the blacksmith doesn’t just finish the last bang with his hammer, sharpen the sword, and then hand it to the swordsman. The swordsman must be as patient as the blacksmith, and wait as the sword is heated, quenched, and then heated again to harden the steel to perfection. See, I didn’t go into a long detailed explanation of how the steel is first drawn-out, tapered, and then austentized. And after that how it is annealed and then austentized again before it is hardened and finally tempered. Why would I? Do my readers need to know the whole process? No. They just need to know that the process was long and the swordsman waited patiently for the blade he would use to avenge his bride’s death. A long detailed description of the process could be detrimental to your readers following the story. It could cause them to lose interest… to drift from your fictive bubble into another.
So what do you do with all that research you’ve done? Amanda Blount, writer and author of the Grits, Hugs, and Sweet Tea blog says, “I never waste research. When I do research for world building, I think of the world we already have and think what would go into a PowerPoint to gain investors and future leaders to a completely empty Earth. What do they really need to know to bring their money and citizens to this planet? What would they want to hear to encourage them to leave their world behind? How much time does any adult want to listen to the information before their eyes glaze over? I stick to the basics. I answer these questions; who, what, when, where, why, and how? Once I limit my world to important bullet points, the other research naturally falls away, but the additional research isn’t wasted. For those who want to learn more about their new world, I can move all the extra research into an appendix. The appendix is the perfect place for additional maps, photos, detailed weather reports (the PowerPoint version would only include yearly high/low type of info), crops, seaports, housing, predators, and other dangers, natural resources, etc. Of course, this isn’t a PowerPoint we are talking about, but the original report represents what the readers need to know and the appendix can still be an appendix in the book. But if the extra research is long enough, the rest of the research can be turned into a separate book and sold as a “travel guide” for tourists or potential new residents.”
The point is, research is never wasted. It only helps to improve your job as a writer… to be a tour guide of the new world you’ve created and to take your readers on a journey of change. Author, Jake Parrick, takes this idea a step further. He says, “Research gives the author options he would not have had otherwise. If the author spends time to plot the weather patterns of a new world, then he knows that in June there are vast monsoon-like storms. It’s an option he can use in the story; it doesn’t have to be used but its extra ammo. A gun without ammo is useless. A bow without arrows is useless. And an author without options is useless.”
We live in a world that is ripe with muse and rich in history. A world where scientific laws and theories help us to explain the how and why. A world where the mistakes of the past are lessons to improve our future. As writers, we can create worlds that are equally as rich in history and science, we just need to expand on the body of information that already exists. Jake Parrick sums it up well, “We bury the seeds of fantasy within mountains of reality, all with the purpose of convincing our reader to suspend their disbelief.”