Research Responsibilities

Posted: March 12th, 2012 under Craft.
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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.

** 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…

****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.


  • Comment by Annabel (Mrs Redboots) — March 12, 2012 @ 3:36 pm


    I haven’t caught you out in any mistakes yet… Connie Willis, er – yes. There was a story she wrote that she’d set in England and part of the plot revolved around her hero’s inability to pay for his daughter’s dental treatment. Except that dental treatment for those under 16 (under 19 in full-time education) happens to be free in this country!

  • Comment by SnowGator — March 12, 2012 @ 5:30 pm


    Hey, leave my treasured childhood memories of the “Man of Bronze” out of this! (In truth, I’m afraid to go back and read my collection for the reason you mention; I’m still hoping one of the kids will be fascinated by one of the covers and pull it off the shelf to read.)

  • Comment by Moira — March 12, 2012 @ 6:19 pm


    I’ve always appreciated a well-researched novel. It adds immeasurably to my enjoyment of the book, and I love books that teach me something as well as entertain me.

    I’ve been known to toss a book on the junk heap if it appears that the research – and/or editing – is MIA. Case in point: a contemporary international intrigue suspense thingy where, within the first two chapters, the author demonstrated his ignorance of:
    – The fact that Latin and modern Italian are two completely different languages;
    – The fact that the rank of Commander does not exist in the U.S. Army.
    Good lord, that’s not exactly stretching things, it’s basic general knowledge! No esoteric research needed, no specialist knowledge required. Apparently no editing applied.

    Oh, and the author had multiple books out and the one in question wasn’t his first NYT Bestseller…

    So as I think by now we’ve all agreed, Elizabeth: you just keep on doin’ it up right. (And thank you, thank you, thank you!)

  • Comment by elizabeth — March 12, 2012 @ 6:44 pm


    Research can show up when you need it, even without a search–sometimes. I think I’ve mentioned that when I was in Norway, I turned on the TV in my hotel room one night and got an English-language program by one of the British elite service teams on hostage extrication. With a practice demo. I knew I had a hostage extrication to write in the next book, and I had exhausted my regular stable of experts–so I sat there glued to the screen and taking both mental and written notes. A day or two later, armed with the information from the program, I was on a train and spotted the perfect (not anything like the demo exercise) site.

    I’ve had a few people edge up to me at conventions after that book came out and say “Where did you learn about that? You never were in [special team that individual knew best]. Who do you know?” I tell them which service it was, and where I saw it, and there’s a headshake.

  • Comment by Steve Sundeen — March 12, 2012 @ 7:13 pm


    I can overlook some minor errors and I am not as nitpicky as some, but it can be annoying when there are things that could have been corrected by a minimal amount of research.

    The worst are books that include a fair amount of firearms-related action and the author includes things like a made up caliber, sound suppressors that completely muffle any noise, and shotgun hits that knock the target through the air. None of these things require an encyclopedic knowledge of firearms, nor would the person have to spend months of training. Most of the “gun” people I know love to talk about guns and would be more than happy to share their knowledge.

  • Comment by Kerry aka Trouble — March 12, 2012 @ 8:33 pm


    I devoured my dad’s Doc Savage books (he had a 4′ shelf full of them) when I was in 5th grade or so. I doubt I could read one today without laughing my head (to be polite about it) off.

    The types of errors you mention I’m not sure if I would notice (except the bay, being a former rider) or seeing east where west was used most recently to describe somewhere. What throws me out of a story the fastest is finding the wrong word in use. Case in point, I just read a sentence today that used the words ‘toting up’ where the context made it clear that some counting and summing of money was going to be done. The word should have been either ‘totaling’ or ‘totting’. I had to stop reading and figure out what the author meant to say. Aren’t misspellings that the spell checker won’t catch fun?

  • Comment by elizabeth — March 12, 2012 @ 9:27 pm


    Steve: Yes…and the category of fictional guns that a friend of mine calls “fantasy firearms” (akin to fantasy swords in being amazing-sparkly-wonderful-impressive….and utterly impossible weapons to actually use.) I need to take a chunk out of this post, add more firearms-related “Oh please don’t write that!” stuff to it, and put it up on my LJ. But then I’d have to get into other technical things that are simple if you think to look them up. Another writer friend, in a closed list (so I can’t say much about it) teaches writing and has been entertaining the list with some hilarious failure-to-do-research from students.

  • Comment by elizabeth — March 12, 2012 @ 9:32 pm


    Kerry: Misspellings the spell-checker can’t check are killers…they’re hard for people to see. I find reading passages out loud will pick up more than anything else, but when the deadline looms, that may not happen for every paragraph in the book. Patricia Wrede has been running an excellent series on the business of writing, and today’s was on retirement–what it means for writers, including (if you’ve managed your business right) the opportunity to take longer in writing the books you really want to write–retiring not from writing, but from the deadline.

  • Comment by Hugh S. Myers — March 12, 2012 @ 11:13 pm


    Color me impressed by the list of things you know about. I’ve read all of your work from the very beginning and don’t remember my ‘editor sense’ being invoked but as the song says ‘Ah but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now…’ I’ve only one pet peeve with virtually all (not you 🙂 )fantasy both high and low (is there a middle fantasy?) And that is it’s near total ignorance of weaving and the textile arts in general. It can’t be all that hard to locate the local weaver’s guild and find someone to ask—I swear if I see ‘woof’ one more time I’ll probably have a window repair bill to pay for. I am admittedly over sensitized in that I’ve been a weaver for many years, but it just kills me to see mistake on par with the small planet and helmet-less astro critters when it takes far less work than your hostage extraction research took to get things write. So I guess as a plea from a fan, if you feel the urge to include any details about ‘string manipulation’ and you are not sure, give me a yell and I’ll set next to you on the weaver’s bench until we get it right 🙂

  • Comment by Hugh S. Myers — March 12, 2012 @ 11:16 pm


    Did you notice the type of write instead of right? I suppose I could claim it as a pun, but honesty make me admit to the error 🙂

  • Comment by RichardB — March 13, 2012 @ 12:53 am


    I’m struck that Shamus Young just posted very similar sentiments at

    (Disclaimer: no commercial connections, just a fan of both authors).

  • Comment by Jennifer — March 13, 2012 @ 3:17 am


    Then there’s the flip side – when the author has done their research, and needs to fit all of it into the story so it isn’t wasted. I’ve actually put down novels that spent too much time on the realistic details of early fire-arms and not enough on the story.

    I remember watching the movie trailer for “The Core” once, while at the movie theatre with a bunch of NASA geeks. The basic science even in the trailer was so horribly bad we were practically falling off of our chairs laughing.

  • Comment by Rob — March 13, 2012 @ 6:08 am


    I cringed when I read in “A Princess of Mars” that John Carter “sheathed his bloody sword.”

  • Comment by Celina — March 13, 2012 @ 6:55 am


    Ah, some authors and horses… In one book I read, the horses was treated as some kind of car. In a fantasy world. They could galop for days without any water, food or breaks. All the maincharacters also rode stallions, because that is more manly or something. So the author kind of forgot to add mares, geldings and foals to that world. But that author did some research for his last book, the characters that was in a hurry switched horses instead of using them as cars, so he is partly forgiven.

  • Comment by Jenn — March 13, 2012 @ 7:42 am


    Diana Wynne Jones’ “A Tough Guide to Fantasyland” was a joyful read pointing out this problem.

    My favorite “oops” in a book was a character was transported up north in June and it was still dark. My guess was the author was writing that part in the winter.

  • Comment by greycats — March 13, 2012 @ 11:14 am


    I do get it about too much detail. Example:I’m fine with re-animation fantasy as long as the process stays in the metaphysical/magical realm. When the writer gets into physical processes, however, sirens begin to wail. A writer I admire very much created as a central character in a novel a person who had, without his knowledge, been re-animated and had to be convinced that he was, in fact, dead. One of the signs of being dead is failure to breathe; he was forgetting to breathe and had not drawn a breath in the previous 15 minutes the story went. A good argument for being dead, this, except he was responding to the argument point by point and was therefore talking the whole time. Ever try to speak while holding your breath? Neither inhaling nor exhaling? Can’t be done (except for esophageal speech which uses swallowed air and which would have to be explained if he were doing this).

    So he was breathing, if only to be able to form words. Better, perhaps, to have argued that he only breathed when he talked.

    And too bad. Up to that point the novel was such a tour de force in the use of sympathetic and mirror magic that I never even blinked as I slid through the pages.

  • Comment by pjm — March 13, 2012 @ 5:20 pm


    For a reminder of some issues in writing realistic fantasy look up “On Thud and Blunder”, an essay written some years back by Poul Anderson. It is now available on the web.

  • Comment by Wickersham's Conscience — March 13, 2012 @ 6:39 pm


    “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” by Larry Niven would vie with the late Diane Wynne Jones’ “Tough Guide” as my favorite dismantling of fantasy.

    When I was just a pup, I started to read A.E. Van Vogt’s “Voyage of the Star Ship Beagle” and gave up with the chlorine-breathing Big Bad Monster was able to breathe the Beagle’s oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere without exploding.

    It’s all about the wiling suspension of disbelief. When you cross the line, it blows the story up. John Wayne as Ghenghiz Khan in “The Golden Horde” – “the willing suspension of disbelief until dead, dead, dead.”

  • Comment by Hugo Fuchs — March 13, 2012 @ 9:31 pm


    I’m going to disagree with Steve Sundeen. There are silent weapons, though it depends on what type you’re talking about, and they are customized to be that way. You can make up future calibers, and in the past there were alot of calibers used, as well as many one-offs of unique calibers. As well, if you need a shotgun that will knock someone off their feet, try an elephant gun (2 gauge) with the victim wearing a vest; of couse, it would also knock smaller wielder’s of the gun off thier feet. Point of all this being, there are lots of things that exist that MIGHT fit the story need, but are unlikely to be readily available.

    BTW, JW as GK wasn’t that bad, if you ignore the fact that everyone’s not asian.

  • Comment by elizabeth — March 13, 2012 @ 10:08 pm


    Hugo & Steve (and anyone else tempted this direction) I’m going to have to rein you in on firearm neepery, because (yes, even though I mentioned it first as part of research) this particular blog is pretty much limited to the world of Paksenarrion. Which has no firearms (though there are a few fire spells.) Mind you, I’m not anti-firearm chat–but this isn’t the place, please.

  • Comment by elizabeth — March 13, 2012 @ 10:15 pm


    Jennifer: the flip side is known as “making the reader suffer for your research” or “telling them more about penguins than they wanted to know.” I’m easily tempted into that, because I love learning new stuff, and get all excited, and want to share it…sometimes it’s even older stuff and I think I finally have a place to share it…and usually Editor says “Um…not everyone wants to know that much about [whatever.]” A few writers are superb at working a lot more of the tech detail into a book–in an interesting way, and a plot-relevant way. I nominate Nevil Shute, particularly in Trustee from the Toolroom, one of my all-time favorite novels.

  • Comment by elizabeth — March 13, 2012 @ 10:21 pm


    greycats: Or, as has been said to writers, “It ain’t what you don’t know that’ll get you but what you think you know and don’t.”

    Although I suppose for reanimated characters, you could say there’s another way for the dead (formerly dead?) to speak without breathing…if you specified that…

  • Comment by elizabeth — March 13, 2012 @ 10:22 pm


    You’d think, being a Confederate veteran, he’d have known better. Then again…there are times when you forget.

  • Comment by elizabeth — March 13, 2012 @ 10:22 pm


    I had to go look at the site–not someone I knew about. But yeah.

  • Comment by elizabeth — March 13, 2012 @ 10:32 pm


    Hugh: Weavers just haven’t shown up yet. They’re there, of course, or there wouldn’t be any cloth, but they haven’t walked into my head and said “Hey! You! I’m in this story and I want lines!” When we moved to this town, I was astonished to find a weaver in a storefront downtown…I used to go hang out around her and watch her. As a child I was given a book on the history of weaving (Man Is a Weaver was the title and I was fascinated by the archaeological evidence as it was then. And of course we kids played with little toy looms. But Susannah’s was a floor loom, a big complicated thing. At one time I thought I’d like to try weaving, but then we adopted our son and time vanished from my awareness. Still, every time I see a video of someone weaving, whether it’s hand-weaving a palm hat or basket, or with a backstrap loom, or a big loom the size of a room…I’m fascinated.

  • Comment by Hugo Fuchs — March 13, 2012 @ 11:05 pm


    My point was lost, which was, there are things, which are thought by many to be impossible, illogical for weapons, as well as other things, that had limited use, but did exist.

    I constantly find things existing before ‘common’ history says it did, though not neccessarily in the modern form.

    This even applies to medieval ‘fantasy’ ideas.

  • Comment by elizabeth — March 13, 2012 @ 11:32 pm


    Hugo: That’s certainly true. I have books on medieval technology that contradict commonly held beliefs about the “dark ages when nothing changed for a thousand years because of the Church.”

  • Comment by Moira — March 13, 2012 @ 11:47 pm


    I couldn’t agree more – we are so arrogant about the past, thinking that nothing could possibly match what we have today, that our technology is so far superior to anything that came before. And it’s just not true at all – modern science is only beginning to catch up with some of the tried & tested methods of the past. Our ancestors didn’t have scientific reasoning to back them up – they just had the common sense to accept the proof of what worked & what didn’t.

    Aspirin – comes from the age-old remedy of willow bark.
    Ancient Egyptians used honey as an antiseptic – quite recently, modern medicine figured out that in fact, they were absolutely spot on. (Not to mention, they performed brain surgery and their patients lived.)
    The Great Pyramid was built with such precision and to such fine tolerances that leading architects and engineers have said they’re not sure we could match it today, even WITH all of our machinery and technology. Amazing.
    And so many, many more examples. It’s fascinating to me to read about this stuff, and it makes “fantasy” that’s well written and grounded in the possible very easy to digest.

    Speaking of digesting, I haven’t had dinner yet… there’s a stew with my name on it, so I’m off. Night, everyone.

  • Comment by Jenn — March 14, 2012 @ 10:16 am


    @ pjm
    Great Essay. I think that will go in my copy and paste section!

    @ Moira
    May I add Roman aqueducts to your list.
    Oh and for a “modern” marvel check out the miraculous staircase of the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

  • Comment by elizabeth — March 14, 2012 @ 10:27 am


    I’ve now ‘ported the research post over to my LiveJournal.

  • Comment by Steve Sundeen — March 14, 2012 @ 7:43 pm


    Hugh, I do see your point and I am willing to be forgiving, to some degree. Most of the things that rise to the level of bothering me, have to be pretty bad and completely out of place for the time period in question. Obviously, with fantasy and sci fi, you have a fair amount of leeway, but some rules still apply (metallurgy, physics, etc.).

  • Comment by Tim K. — March 15, 2012 @ 5:30 am


    Research. Research. Research.
    I always feel those three words are important for a writer of anything.

  • Comment by elizabeth — March 15, 2012 @ 7:52 am


    Tim: Absolutely. But so are another three words: Revision, Revision, Revision.

  • Comment by Karen — March 15, 2012 @ 9:15 am


    My first taste of your writing was with the opening pages of Sheesfarmer’s daughter (which my brother promptly stole, along with Divided Allegiance and Oath of Gold in turn, leading me to have to buy the omnibus — and just now checking for exact titles, Amazon informs me there’s a leather-bound edition!!!). The thing that sucked me (and my brother) into this new world was a sense of your curiosity about every aspect of your characters’ lives.

    I could smell the sheep Paks had tended so long. I could feel the unfamiliar heft of her grandfather’s sword for the first time. I could feel the emptiness in her belly when she finally reached the recruiting station where she first met Stammel — and immediately recognized his years of experience when he sent her to eat before they marched.

    When Paks yearned for battle while building walls, my shoulder muscles twinged. It wasn’t until her first battle that she stepped beyond something I’ve experienced — that excitement that drives off pain and fear of blood. I’m touching on your previous post, about the need for more fight scenes in the fifth book. However, I’ve never been so moved by the excitement, the stench, and the struggle of battle in anyone else’s books — because there was never a moment when I didn’t believe that you were not only driven by curiosity into “how does this affect the very nature of this character” but also that you had considered every detail of how that character’s knowledge of the meaning of their own struggle determined the result.

    In other words, please keep being curious about things only a few people know. You don’t have to turn your books into dissertations for your readers to appreciate your attention to detail.

  • Comment by Sharidann — March 16, 2012 @ 4:31 am


    Thanks for sharing that insight.

    I am not a nitpicker myself but I agree totally about research being a must for a writer.

    And of your examples… well the bay wouldn’t have caught my eyes, which shows I need to learn about everything about horses. 🙂

  • Comment by Bridgett — March 17, 2012 @ 5:44 pm


    Karen, well said! I agree completely.

  • Comment by Husqvarna — March 18, 2012 @ 11:38 pm


    I’m one of those who will only tolerate a few technical slips. But I haven’t spotted any so far in the Paks books. Your knowledge of archery and horses far exceed mine, but what empresses me most as an army veteran is your feel in general for military life. The army is different than the Marine corp; modern military is different than medieval leval technology; but some things like having 20 roomates, dealing with NCO’s and officers of varying competence and fairness has probably not changed greatly over the ages. I was stuck on Paks as soon as you made her seem to be a real troop to me.
    Keep the Paks stories coming and keep going with the good research.

  • Comment by Fred Zebruk — March 21, 2012 @ 6:55 pm


    Loved the part about darning socks. My brother was in the RCAF as a recruit in 1960. He got out before completing his trades training but he still has the “housif” they issued him as a recruit.
    Housif is the navy slang for the sewing kit. It is the short form of house wife.

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