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Writing Wednesday: Know Your Onion’s Enemy

September 7, 2011

In Monday’s entry I talked a little about commitment and the need for research.  This brings to mind a few months ago when Mr. Offutt was schooling me on the boarding school scenes in “Where You Belong.”  He thought that in particular my presentation of the young gay males in the school was not accurate, especially concerning the AIDS epidemic that began in the early ‘80s or so.

And he’s right.  I should have done some more homework on that.  Maybe I should have done some interviews and looked stuff up about AIDS back then.  But I’m lazy.  As I said in the last entry, I’m a measure once guy.  I just let ‘er rip most of the time and worry about researching later, or try to do just enough to get by.

Which reminds me of when I was watching “Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked” on the History Channel (when it was still the History Channel and they didn’t just show programming about rednecks).  Comic book guru Stan Lee was talking about an issue of Spider-Man where Peter Parker’s friend Harry Osborne overdoses on some pills.  To paraphrase, Lee said, “I didn’t know anything about drugs, so I just made up some pills or something.”

That’s how comics and SF books back in the day did it.  You just made shit up.  Can a radioactive spider really turn you into Spider-Man?  Hell no!  Would gamma rays turn you into the Incredible Hulk or cosmic radiation make you Mr. Fantastic?  No, they’d probably just kill you.  Could you take a rocket ship to Mars and battle little green men?  You could try, but it’d take years (if you got off the ground) and you’d find no one there once you arrived.

But for books grounded in the real world, especially “literary” books, you need to have a little better grasp of the details.  Maybe a lot of people won’t notice or care, but those who do are going to be pissed off, like when I read “The Sportswriter” by Richard Ford and he said people in Michigan pronounce Grand Rapids as “Gren Repids.”  No we don’t!  I don’t know anyone here who says that!  Or in “Next” by James Hynes where he kept calling the airport in Detroit “Detroit Metro” when no one here would call it that.  Or when I read “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides and he said they made B-52s during WWII and Al Kaline played first base.  The latter was slightly true (at the end Kaline played a few games there) but those were obvious goofs.  When you start making goofs, whoever catches them is going to think you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.  If you can’t get the small things right, maybe you’re not right on the big ones either!

Another example actually concerns music.  I was reading a critic’s review of the latest Decemberists album “The King is Dead” and the critic was going on and on about how the band wanted to sound like REM.  I thought, “What are you talking about?”  To me the album sounded much more like Tarkio, which was the alt-country band the lead singer of the Decemberists was in previously.  If the music critic had done some damned research he might have known that!

But then it might not have suited his point, which is how Fox “News” does all of their research.  In the end, if you don’t do your homework, someone’s going to give you an F.

Friday:  Find out who’s the only true movie star left in Hollywood…


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  1. I also think that aside from pissing off the critics, research improves your writing. It’s so much better to be able to write confidently about details you know about rather than sit around and make it up. I don’t know about you, but making up things really bugs me on a personal level. I always question if I did it right or does this even sound good? In one of the books I’ve written and am editing, I spent hours maybe even days researching Cornell University to death. I watched hundreds of student videos on youtube, sat through at least three full games played by the Big Red ice hockey team, and watched every video I could find that was posted on youtube to get the feel of Lynah Rink right. I read boring technical manuals on the particle collider they have buried under the athletic field just so I could figure out how the thing works. Then on top of that I read everything. I read student blogs, I read the school newspaper for a year, I read stuff written by their famous alumni (Vonnegut, Carl Sagan), etc. just so I could understand what it is like to go to that Ivy League school. I have to say, I think I got things right. However, it ballooned the crap out of my book. I included so much detail I had to cut because I’d hit 120,000 words like it was nothin’. Once I actually got down to writing, the sequel essentially wrote itself. It’s the editing that has been the hardest part (editing it myself before I send it off to my actual editor).

    • I’d rather just make shit up. Then I can do whatever I want. Like when I created the town of Midway for “Where You Belong” I didn’t spend hours researching the history of manure. I think for the KY Academy’s history I looked up some upstate New York cities on Wikipedia.

      There is that tendency once you do a lot of research on something to want to cram everything in that you learned. Then most of it winds up on the cutting room floor.

      Though I always wish I could do like Elmore Leonard and just dispatch minions to do some of the research for me. Also just having minions would be pretty sweet.

  2. Hiroko permalink

    One thing I love about science fiction is that I’m allowed quite a bit of making-up-stuff here and there; but as far as that making-up goes, without a little background research or at LEAST some relevant facts, the “facts” of your book are going to sound a litte silly.


  3. I wasted a full year ‘researching’ for a novel that I never wrote, then another year researching for a novel I did write, but almost all that ‘research’ got tossed out. Now I do my best to get it right and go back to try to make sure I don’t do anything too stupid. Writing historical things can be damn tough. Like finding out when the gas street lights in the town I was writing about in were replaced with electric… and when the market house quit selling livestock… and what buildings were burned during a specific fire in the 19th century.

    I do all that only to find out that I’m an idiot because I have a character use a gun that didn’t hit the market until two years after the story takes place…. you will always miss something, no matter how much research you do.

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