The Necessity of Good Research

Copyright 1995, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

This article originally appeared in Science Fiction & Fantasy Workshop Newsletter # 173, February 1996.

If you're like many people, you've probably read a great deal of a particular sort of fiction. Perhaps your thing is high fantasy, or rollicking space opera, or introspective sociological science fiction. Whatever it may be, you've read so much of it that you're certain that you could now sit down and write something just as good.

But wait -- no matter how much fiction you may have read, it's still just that. If you use other people's fiction as your only source of research for your own story, you will wind up doing nothing but parroting them. Worse yet, since you have little or no way of knowing all the foundational work that may well underly your favorite writers' universes, you will wind up only copying the visible parts of their strucutre. Rather like photocopying a copy, you will wind up producing a work that is cruder and lacking in the depth of the original.

How can you recitfy this problem? You must go back to the sources of the basic ideas of your sub-genre -- non-fiction books about the areas of endeavor upon which these sub-genres have been developed. For instance, if you are writing a high fantasy, you will want to do some research on the real Middle Ages and how people really lived at the time, then develop your own variant in which the magic really works, instead of just copying another writer's idea of how a medieval society would have handled magic. If you're writing a space opera with lots of epic battles, read up on naval warfare from the development of the line of battle through the eclipse of the battleship by the carrier. If you want to do science fiction in which the interactions between character and culture is paramount, read accounts of how real cultures work.

There are two basic kinds of non-fiction works that you will want to look at. Primary sources are materials written by persons who were actually involved in the events that they are writing about. Examples of primary sources include letters, diaries and autobiographical materials, as well as some official documents and case records. Secondary sources are materials written by people who have studied the primary sources and are interpreting the information in them. Most scholarly literature falls into this category. Therefore you will generally want to start with secondary sources in order to get a handle on the subject matter and only then examine what has been written by people who were actually involved in the events.

However you will want to make sure to get good secondary sources, since badly researched or written sources can actually do more harm than good by giving you a distorted or misleading view of the events. When deciding to use a given secondary source for background research, there are two major points to look at in order to decide if it is a reliable source. First, look at the author's credentials. Does the author have the background to speak authoritatively on the subject? For instance, a professional historian would be more likely to produce a reliable analysis of a historical event, while a scientist can speak authoritatively on scientific matters. Secondly, look at the bibliography of sources that the author looked at while researching the book. Does the author go back to the primary source materials, or is there a preponderance of secondary source materials? If the author is relying primarily on what others have written about the event rather than original source materials, the book is likely to just parrot what others have said.

If you are careful to use good source material when you are doing background research for your writing, you will be able to get a good grasp of the ideas that you are using in your stories. Therefore you will be able to build a more complete and well-rounded world for your characters to live in.

Copyright 1997, 1998 by Leigh Kimmel

For permission to quote or reprint, contact Leigh Kimmel

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