There’s a cozy mystery by Alisa Craig with a character famed for writing historical fiction, whose “research” involved randomly flipping a reference book open, sticking a pin into the page, and inserting whatever factoid it skewered into her book. She couldn’t be bothered with real research, she just wanted a few, random things to make it look like she knew what she was talking about.
I think we can all agree that research can be important for writing. Fiction or non-fiction doesn’t matter.
If you’re dealing with facts, they need to be right.
Inaccuracies reflect badly on us, the writers, whether it’s a statistic in a marketing piece, a quote in a blog post, or a historical fact gotten wrong in a piece of fiction. But, still, I feel there’s a difference between “doing research” and “gathering background.”
If I’m writing a piece on air purifiers, I need to know some facts about how they work. I need to know, in general, what they do, why they’re beneficial, and why you should have one. That is not the same as talking about the specific air purifier I might be trying to sell, or what makes it better than its competition. It’s more background-gathering than real, heavy-duty research.
What’s the difference?
Research, to my mind, has a specific purpose. You could be looking for the date a war ended, the year a gadget was invented, the name of a company founder, the causes of cancer. These may or may not be questions that have ready answers, but they are specific information needs.
Background, on the other hand, is more general. At what time did having a telephone in the house become common? What was life like in the 1500s? What sort of town was Bath during Jane Austen’s time? Why is going to the dentist important? Is marketing really that useful to my company?
No matter what you’re writing, there’s a certain foundation of knowledge you need to have.
If you’re writing a marketing piece to sell vacuum cleaners, you can probably assume that potential buyers already know what a vacuum is and why they want one—your objective is to tell them why they should by THIS one. But, if you’re selling something that you have no personal knowledge of (say, professional-grade harvesting equipment, Zamboni machines, obscure medical devices), you’re going to need some background first.
You need to have at least a general idea of what you’re talking about if you want to sound even remotely convincing.
If you’re writing fiction, you need to know all sorts of things that might not find their specific way into the text. A story set in 1860 Atlanta will have all kinds of things in the background—the outbreak of Civil War, slavery, Abraham Lincoln’s election, tobacco, the latest hoop skirt fashions, the scent of magnolia blossoms, the tart zing of lemonade, what a hot, Georgia summer feels like without air conditioning, what it was like to travel in a carriage on bumpy roads … you get the idea. Will all of these things have a role in the story? Not necessarily, but they’re THERE. They are things that even a character solely focused on bringing in his cotton crop knows is happening in his world.
Okay … that’s enough for this installment … please share your thoughts below!