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Research Responsibilities [Mar. 14th, 2012|10:12 am]
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This was 'ported over from the Paksworld blog, on the grounds that it might interest others who don't read fantasy.   If you read it there, it's pretty much the same. 

Ritual disclaimer: nobody gets through a long writing career without some mistakes.  You will sometimes trust the wrong research source (even if it’s someone who should have the knowledge you’re looking for–say a fire department veteran you’ve asked about a procedural point in managing a multi-alarm fire…and no, this isn’t a problem I’ve had.)    No writer knows everything, and every writer must, at some point, trust a map, or a reference book, or a person who seems to have first-hand knowledge.

But there’s a huge difference between occasionally  trusting the wrong source and not looking something up at all.   Writers should look things up in the best source they can find or beg/borrow/get via Interlibrary Loan before they plan a book or a chapter–and should let the facts dictate how the story goes, rather than ignoring the facts because they already have a fantasy-version in mind.

Early on, I saw this most in regard to horses.   Fictional horses could do things no live horse could do…behaved as no live horse behaves…and certain types of fictional horse existed in historical periods where that horse did not exist.   Later, I saw it in regard to aircraft (including the contest entry of a private pilot who should have known better), biology (how plants actually work, how an ecosystem functions, even what human anatomy is like on the inside)  and weaponry, from knives to artillery.

This is not to say that the far-future sword or firearm has to be just like the ones we know in every detail.    In the Liaden books by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, for instance, an alien species called the Clutch Turtles has a subgroup that makes–or rather grows–incredible knives that are apparently stone but whose characteristics are unstonelike.   Because they had the good sense not to tell too much (they don’t give you a long infodump on the chemical composition)  I can accept that  Clutch knives are better than steel and unlike anything we know. Fine–it’s far-future SF, the Clutch are alien, the planet on which the knives are grown are not Earth.    Their humans also have “pellet guns” for sidearms: they appear to function like any other pistol, and since no caliber or other details are given, and the function depends on the shooter’s accuracy, I’m not bothered by concern that the “pellets” aren’t just like the .22 longs I use when plinking at a stack of cans.

Swords are the same kind of thing.   I have a fair knowledge of real swords–their weight, their length, their balance as fighting weapons.  I know that many different styles of sword (or blade longer than a knife) have existed and been used in different cultures and each one has its benefits.    I’ve learned some of them to a very amateur level; I’ve read translations of famous fencing manuals, and quite a bit of history about how swords were used in individual and mass combat.  If a character pulls a sword and the writer doesn’t tell me the wrong details about it (it’s too heavy, it’s the wrong length/weight/whatever for the style the character uses) I will accept any reasonable move with that sword.

And again, for bows:  I have a crossbow built on a historical model.   I’ve shot both simple and recurved bows (not recently, though.)     I’ve done the reading on the use of archery of various styles in warfare of various places.  I know from historical records what shooting a heavy longbow does to the archer’s body over time.    I know a little about bow woods, about bow strings, about how arrows were made and fletched, and so on.    So if a writer doesn’t violate the realities of archery,  I’ll sit there and read the story and not be thrown out.

Beyond weaponry, there’s the craft of warfare–the stuff I learned first reading Caesar and then reading military history and some modern manuals while I was on active duty.   I’ve continued with that, paying attention to the professional-level stuff when I could get it and ignoring (for writing purposes)  the stuff you see in movies and on TV.   What makes a good movie (at least for light viewing) does not necessarily make a good book, as we’ve discussed.

Any time a writer specifies a detail…often in a number…someone with real expertise is going to perk up his/her ears and check it out.   Connie Willis commented once that writing historical novels set during the Civil War meant having all the Civil War buffs sort of hovering over you, ready to pounce on the slightest error.    I’m alert to certain kinds of errors, but not to all (I could read bad sailing-era stories in which the sails were given the wrong names and never be bothered…but call a horse a “bay” and then specify its mane is “gold” and I’m poised for the kill.*   Fail to grasp the difference between speed of light and speed of sound…I’ll detect that. **   Fail to grasp the implications of speed of light at stellar distances, and ditto.***  Don’t know whether the firearm’s ammunition is traveling faster than the speed of sound?    That’s something to look up.    Designing the moon of a gas giant and want something small to have a breathable atmosphere?   Best look up tables of density and understand the effects of a very steep gravitational gradient.****

One reason is that if you get in the habit of skimping on research in one area (did people in X century wear underclothes?)  you will soon begin skimping in others.    A writer improves only by being tough on himself/herself,  by striving for accuracy even in completely fictional situations.  The other reason is that some readers will already know more than the writer, and of those some are especially sensitive to errors.   (Like Connie Willis, I know this because I’ve made  mistakes a reader has caught. )

Readers come to fiction hoping for a good experience, however that reader defines a good experience.    In general, unless in the mood I used to have during Finals, when I’d read Doc Savage books for the sheer joy of poking fun, mistakes interfere with the reader’s good experience.   They make readers mistrustful, unable to sink into the story,  anxious about how bad it’s going to be…how many mistakes they’ll be expected to swallow.    And whatever affects readers’ satisfaction affects readers’ behavior in buying books.

* Horse colors describe patterns:  a bay horse always has a black mane and tail.    The color of the body does not define the term for common US/English color names.   A chestnut and a bay may both have the same shade of brown on the body, but will only the bay will have a black mane and tail.  (Other cultures may divide up the equine color patterns differently, and that can be a useful thing to do if readers realize it's different from "here.")

** On this and other Earthlike planets with the same density of atmosphere, the speed of sound lags the speed of light... a lot.  Thus if you and the other guy are shooting at each other across a valley, you will see the muzzle flash well before you hear the shot.    Stories in which the sound and the flash come together over such distances are…wrong.

***If you have a method of instantaneous communication across interstellar distances, and something goes *poof* over there, your communications will be cut off years before you see that star go nova or disappear or whatever.  In one bad SF story I read, someone is looking up through a transparent dome  at the very distant star…as he chats on this instant-phone-thing.   As the conversation is cut off, he sees the star disappear.   (Hairpulling and book throwing by this reader ensued.)  If you have no instantaneous communicator, you would experience an “outage” at the same time the start disappeared, but your conversations would be very….very….slow…"HI, Jim, how are you and the kids?" and forty years later (for a star 20 LY away) "Ron--we're going great.  Wish you were here."  "Who's Ron--I got this number eight years ago?" and forty years later, "This number is no longer in service."

****In one story, a gas giant’s moon was supposed to be small enough to walk around in a couple of hours,  be completely barren with no water resources, and yet hold a breathable atmosphere…people walked around without helmets or any other air supply and seemed to have roughly Earth-normal gravity at the surface.   Er….not.   Without plants and water, the atmosphere isn't going to be breathable.   If you postulate some non-biological way of getting an atmosphere with a high enough partial pressure of oxygen to allow humans to stroll around outside without supplementary O2  then you have to make it plausible.  


[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2012-03-14 04:13 pm (UTC)
And lo...the LJ cut finally worked again, at least on highlighted imported material. That's nice.
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[User Picture]From: klwilliams
2012-03-14 05:24 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting this. This makes very good points. Also, if you still have that info handy, where did you get your information on how longbow usage affects a body over time? Thanks.
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[User Picture]From: blueeowyn
2012-03-14 05:35 pm (UTC)
My guess is something like this http://www.the-tudors.org.uk/mary-rose-longbows.htm and http://thesebonesofmine.wordpress.com/category/the-mary-rose/

I have a friend who does re-enacting and makes his own bows to shoot (not the full period draw though!). If you want I can ask him for more information, just send me an email (username@livejournal.com).
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[User Picture]From: redvixen
2012-03-14 05:42 pm (UTC)
*nods* I've started reading stories that seem very interesting only to give up on them because of too many mistakes.

Usually it's grammatical mistakes that catch my attention but sometimes it's simple errors that get missed - calling a character by the wrong name, the wrong word in by mistake like "from" instead of "for" or "form", etc - during the editing process. Most of the time these are amusing mistakes for me to pick up on.

There was one story I was reading for the critique club I belong to. Luckily it was a very short story as I was ready to give up after two paragraphs. Aside from the spelling and punctuation mistakes, the person had absolutely no idea of authenticity for the setting and the characters in it. Even a third-rate sitcom wasn't as bad as this story. I did inform the author as part of my critique that the story concept had attracted me to it and I liked the underlying plot but the mistakes had simply turned me off of the story.

A story deliberately written to poke fun at a genre is one thing. An author not knowing the details of their settings is another. The first will get me reading and buying more of the author's works. The second - won't.
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[User Picture]From: kk1raven
2012-03-14 06:04 pm (UTC)
I can ignore quite a few errors if the story is good enough but sometimes even small errors in an otherwise good book will distract me quite a bit. I don't know much about horses or swords so authors who don't do their research there can probably put one over on me, but I know about birds and computers and boy do I see plenty of mistakes where they're concerned. I read a book a while back that had a vulture nesting up in the branches of a tree. That kind of ruined the book for me. Finding out that vultures, at least the ones in the US, nest on the ground or in cavities would have taken a few minutes with Google or Wikipedia.
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[User Picture]From: gifted
2012-03-14 09:05 pm (UTC)
Though wiki's not a reliable source of info (just sayin').
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[User Picture]From: shockwave77598
2012-03-14 06:31 pm (UTC)
Well, if you need help from an EE at Nasa, feel free to ask me.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2012-03-15 12:37 am (UTC)
Thanks. I'm always looking at ways to have things go wrong (from small annoyances to major disasters) and an EE to pester...er...beg for help...would be very helpful.
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[User Picture]From: harvey_rrit
2012-03-14 06:58 pm (UTC)
You have reminded me of why it took me an extra hour to watch Avatar. I had to keep stopping the disc to make fun of errors.

Not just scientific ones. A guerrilla force defeating regular troops in battle. A career military commander casually betraying his troops. And then living to do it again.

(God, it is a sin and a shame the people you meet when you ain't carrying a flounder!)
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[User Picture]From: gauroth
2012-03-15 03:47 am (UTC)
Oh my, Avatar! I'm not a scientist, and my knowledge of warfare comes mainly from reading fiction (Ms Moon, the 'Sharpe' books) but even I noticed the points you made! And then there were the bits taken from 'Apocalypse Now' and the 'Final Fantasy' games and Disney's 'Pocohontas' that were bolted onto the story for no reason, and.. oh deary, deary me!
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[User Picture]From: tuftears
2012-03-14 07:05 pm (UTC)

I didn't know about the paksworld blog-- I'll start checking it out now!
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2012-03-15 12:38 am (UTC)
Hope you enjoy it. We have a great group of people over there and include "spoiler spaces" for discussing recently released books without ruining them for people who haven't seen them yet.

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From: baobrien
2012-03-14 07:41 pm (UTC)
One of my favorite memories from college is a history field trip where we spent one night in a hotel room drinking beer and watching an epic "historical" movie set in ancient Rome. Among other criticisms, a professor noticed that they were using stirrups...

("The Great River" was the best class I ever took - the history and literature of the Mississippi River valley, very rigorous work, met for 4 hours every Saturday morning so community members could take the class, too. Everything from how locks and dams worked to Frances Trollope's opinions of Americans.)
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[User Picture]From: blueeowyn
2012-03-14 07:52 pm (UTC)
A friend of mine and I watched Ben Hur on the big screen together. We made sure we weren't anywhere near anyone else as we pointed out to each other the problems. To be fair SOME of them were based on assumptions of the time that it was made that aren't true (they now know a lot more about Triremes since building one and testing it ... my friend was one of the rowers on some of the sea trials). Some of the errors were just stupid mistakes (moving the horses around in the hitch in the chariot race).
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[User Picture]From: kengr
2012-03-14 08:06 pm (UTC)
And folks reacting badly to errors can happen in "ordinary" stories too.

For one, don't write sex scenes if you aren't familiar with the anatomy involved. Or at least don't try to describe said anatomy.

And believe it on not things like clothing sizes and how a female is "built" qualify as specialist terminology and should be avoided unless you know the vocabulary. (having someone grow from 36 B to 44D requires magic or nanotech, not hormones!)

Oh yeah, folks who are bad at spatial relationships *really* need too have someone who is good at them proof things. Or trying "acting out" things. This avoids readers going "But there's no *room* for that!!!"
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2012-03-15 01:34 pm (UTC)
Oh, lordy, those sex scenes that involve too many or too few limbs, or not enough room, or unrealistic...whatevers. Book after book in which a partner's long, luxuriant, over-described tresses never get caught under a body part of the other partner. And they're just as bad in lit-fic as in genre fiction.

Spatial relations don't have to be bad to go wrong in books. The processing of directions in a story varies from that of real-life processing (as I found out the first time I read a country-house mystery with a map--the map cleared it up, but I'd reversed the whole second floor.) So the writer needs to be sure that when Lord Whosit turns left out of the music room to get to his uncle's study whence came the peculiar noise, that's the direction everyone turns to get from the music room to the same study. Drawing a map helps, if the writer is good with maps. Some people aren't. I once drove south from San Antonio with a woman (not in my family) who was convinced that the Gulf of Mexico was somewhere off to the right. There were maps in the car. She had looked at them.
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[User Picture]From: gifted
2012-03-14 09:00 pm (UTC)
Giggled at the hair-pulling / book-throwing.

Elizabeth, you're a breath of fresh air.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2012-03-15 12:31 am (UTC)
I should mention that some people who think they've found an error in a book know LESS than the writer...the same lack of knowledge that afflicts writers can afflict readers. For instance, Judith Tarr--whose historical works are meticulously researched--was told by a copy editor to change the name of a city from Constantinople to Istanbul...when the story was set at a time that the name WAS Constantinople. One copy editor with no military experience but a high level of sensitivity to a different class of error wanted me to have a character say "Staff the weapons." Then there was the fellow ready to blast me for being ignorant enough to have the wrong admiral in the Royal Navy's Adriatic Squadron in August 1914...when the story was a) alternate history and b) having a different admiral in charge was the point of change.
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[User Picture]From: draconin
2012-03-15 09:33 am (UTC)
Ok, I have to ask about this one; what's wrong with the moon being high in the sky in summer? Perhaps my memory's playing tricks on me but I thought I was looking at exactly that last week driving home from work (a near full moon). Is it just that my definition of 'high' is not yours? I'm talking about around 25-30 degrees above the horizon. Or is it possible that you're forgetting about us down in Australia & the rest of the southern hemisphere?

I'm genuinely asking BTW, not being sarcastic.
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[User Picture]From: gauroth
2012-03-15 03:34 am (UTC)
Absolutely! And I'd add bad grammar, too, because it also hurls me out of a story. *cue wailing and gnashing of teeth*
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[User Picture]From: amusingmuse
2012-03-16 01:01 pm (UTC)
I usually give a writer a few passes before I begin grumbling. I know a person can't be a complete authority on everything. But once that threshold is hit, I have a hard time enjoying the narrative. (Unless the piece is meant to be insanely ludicrous.)

Now if something is a major plot point, I get more upset, as that should have been researched. (A Regency I read once had me giggling when the hero rode every day 10 miles to see his love and could get there in just a few minutes with no inconvenience at all. That's why I loved your books, because you took into account travel without combustion engines is much slower.)

But even when it comes to research it depends on where you get your research from and the biases of the sources. How many can read the original sources in their original languages? An author is banking on the scholar not being biased, which isn't a certainty.

Edited at 2012-03-16 01:04 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2012-03-16 01:40 pm (UTC)
Source bias is certainly a problem, but one that writers should at least know about and try to take into account. Fiction writers can steer their stories along a path that involves first-hand experience by people who speak their language (or languages, if the writer is multi-lingual)...unless they're writing historical fiction about locations where they don't know the language. That's a risky proposition, because their work will be looked at for historical accuracy. Those writing in scholarly fields really need the other languages.

Accuracy at any level has always been the writer's responsibility, but by legend there was a time when publishers employed fact-checkers to root out several layers of authorial error. I don't know if that was ever true for fiction; it's certainly not true now. Editors cannot be expected to be experts in everything their writers are producing, and without a fact-checking department they have only their own knowledge to go on. Copy editors are...um...variably educated and equipped, let's say, to deal with manuscripts that go beyond what's easily found. Ritual disclaimer: good copy editors are beyond price. I've had good; they're wonderful. But not all are good. I'm not the only writer who's had a copy editor try to impose error. Some publishing houses give writers little or no chance to find, object to, and correct such errors. It is expensive in time and money to have the writer's eyes on the text after copy editing AND after typesetting...but it's essential if the final book is to be blamed entirely on the writer.

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[User Picture]From: litch
2012-03-16 10:10 pm (UTC)
Contrariwise, I'm a reflexive excuser (at least if I like the story). I will regularly confabulate an explanation for some minor problem that seems to drive others crazy.

It's not exactly the same but take Lisa Shearin's Raine Benares books. They are pretty puffy romance novel/fantasy books. But one thing that seems to drive several people on goodreads batty is the very modern language, banter & attitude her characters use. they don't act like they are living in the medieval world. I fail to understand this objection. The geography of her world in no way resembles our own, she's got elves, goblins and magic out the wazoo, it is clearly not europe in the middle ages. So why do people want people to talk like they were there?
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2012-03-16 10:26 pm (UTC)
I don't know...some people apparently think that anything remotely resembling "medieval" settings require adherence to our Middle Ages (and a specific geographic area at that.)

On some things I've become less tolerant...others, more tolerant.
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[User Picture]From: cissa
2012-03-17 12:32 am (UTC)
I am a metalsmith (mostly small metals, like jewelry, including gems). I would be happy (indeed thrilled!) to advise on what's realistic about such matters. Also, my husband is a blacksmith (hobby).

Like you with horses, I am really thrown out of the book when someone is ignorant about metalwork.
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