I picture authors of earlier generations, scurrying about the stacks of library after library, hunting down obscure facts. The actual depth of a European harbor where they plan to sink a fictional ship. The type of berries Native Americans would have harvested in Maine, in June. They would have poured over old newspaper clippings and microfiche for historical details. No wonder many authors released books far more slowly.
I began writing in the pre-Internet era, but I wasn’t publishing. The great thing about writing for myself was that I didn’t have to be right about details. If I wanted my character to travel from New York City to Boston on horseback in 1880, I didn’t need to research the distance, the number of rivers, fords, bridges, the type of saddle likely used, and so on. I just galloped him there (without overtiring his horse, because that mattered to me) and moved on. I could shoot a character, and have them recover realistically enough for my knowledge base, without hunting down medical references to verify how fast broken shoulder blades heal. Pure fun, without responsibility. But solitary.
Writing for publication is different. Facts and details come under scrutiny by readers.
The Internet’s a wonderful thing. Without leaving my chair, I can find out the average weight of an Angus bull, (so my character can throw off one line about having a two-thousand pound bull waiting in the chute.) I can use Google Maps to get a street view of the businesses along a small town Main Street, so I can write, “He walked by a barber shop with its old-fashioned pole, ducked under the awning of a hardware, and past the sweet-smelling display-window of a bakery.” It’s amazing.
And yet, not everything is easy to find. I spent hours trying to track down the height of a fence I could see in pictures of a Chicago landmark. My character climbs it. I need to know how high the damned thing is… Then, I have an action scene on a Coast Guard vessel. There are pictures, and specs, but they are not the same as knowing how much it pitches on the waves, fifteen miles out at sea. Can you walk across the deck without holding on? Could you fire a handgun and actually hit anything?
Does it matter?
Realism is a matter of author choice. At some point, you have to take license. Unless you live each step your character takes, you’re going to be inventing stuff. The questions is, what things? How many things? What’s important?
Part of the answer is writing style and genre. If I’m writing Alternative Universe paranormal, or fantasy, I may not even have to abide by the laws of physics. If I’m writing a James Bond-style thriller, the fact that a gunshot wound can take months to fully heal might be brushed aside. (Well, I’ll probably still pay attention to medical consequences, because it’s a pet peeve. But I wouldn’t have to.) If I aim for a style that’s ethereal, or minimally descriptive, or humorous, I may not care that much. But given that my goal is usually realism, I try to be diligent.
Of course, there are degrees of diligent. I know an author who moved to another city to live there for months, so he could realistically set his story there. I personally did not drive 8 hours to Chicago and back, to measure that fence.
The other question is, which readers will care, and how much? I’ve worked in veterinary clinics, so mistakes in animal care nag at me. At the same time, I recognize that only a limited number of other readers will notice if someone uses ibuprofen for a dog. And unless someone uses fiction as a medical guideline, those mistakes hurt no-one. (Don’t give a dog ibuprofen, BTW. It causes stomach ulcers.)
I know perfection is out of reach. Someone will always spot the things I failed to check on – the last name that’s not the ethnicity I thought it was, the profession that needs a different college degree or training, the type of tree that doesn’t actually grow tall enough for my hero to climb that high. With luck, I get one review with a little fact-check, and I sigh, make a mental note, and move on.
Recently, we’ve had a huge discussion about the other situation where facts, and shades of meaning, matter a lot— in representation of minority communities. That’s a somewhat different and far more controversial issue, although related. An author’s responsibility, and the required degree of precision, are being hotly debated on that aspect. Clearly, the facts I skip, or fudge, or bungle the research for, matter in differing degrees to different people. Sometimes, it really is vital to someone that I get it right.
Beta readers are great, and again, social media and online groups serve to connect us to people we’d never find in real life. (I’m delighted to see a new focus on sensitivity beta readers, who volunteer to represent their minority communities for author education.) I asked a Navy person about the Coast Guard boat, and emailed the zoo about the fence. But maybe they‘ll give me a right answer. Maybe not. And maybe four betas would give me different answers about firing a handgun on a boat…
Research can be frustrating. (Perhaps my guy can climb some other, imaginary, &%@$# fence!) It can be fun. (I had to drag myself kicking and screaming out of my WWII research to actually write the story.) At the end of the day, it’s just one element of writing a story. One that matters, one that impacts the perception of the story, one that calls for judgment and effort. One that I am very, very glad is far easier for me now than for previous generations of authors. And one where I once again must learn to accept and live with less than perfection, as I continue writing, for the fun of it.