How Important is Book Research?

Blog 30 7In my blog series on how to self-publish, it’s time for some posts about research. Today I’m writing about the importance of research for a work of fiction. In future posts, I’ll discuss when and how to do it.

Let’s start with the problem of an author getting facts right.

The very credibility and success of a non-fiction book turns on the accuracy of its facts. Is this the case for a book of fiction?

The answer, I think, is that fiction can still be well-received with the occasional, unimportant wrong fact, but that fact-checking is still really important.

Say, for example, Richmond Street is misnamed Richmond Avenue in a book set in Toronto. If the use of the name is truly extraneous, perhaps because it occurs once in a transition paragraph of a dystopian novel, many readers will overlook the mistake. And many who do see it will say, “Well, it is a work of fiction,” and look the other way. That’s particularly true if they’re enjoying the plot and characters.

Even so, the mistake will irritate certain readers. Some will even connect it to the book’s overall quality. So, it’s certainly unhelpful.

Now let’s enhance the error a bit. Let’s imagine that the book is a police procedural, and Richmond Avenue is mentioned ten times because a suspect was seen running down it. Now the mistake starts undercutting the entire book. So the room for factual error in fiction is slim.

Another challenging area for authors is making settings authentic.

Sometimes authors deal with this by writing about what they know. Without much research, they have at hand the context and details that make their novel’s place, time and social environment ring with truth.

Of course, an author may choose to write about an unfamiliar setting. It’s very likely some readers also know it, and a few may call him out if it’s not faithfully presented. This risk is highest for a current setting, but many readers know historical settings, too. Good research is required to avert this risk.

But research has a function beyond getting facts and settings right. One of an author’s goals is for his readers to suspend their reality and fully engage in the world he’s created. Careful research is the backbone for this, and may separate the author from the competition.

So, an author’s best approach is not to rely on his readers’ patience and to do the best research possible. This is especially true for self-published authors, who don’t have the benefit of whatever fact-checking publishing houses perform.

Look on the bright side. You can learn a lot from research, and usually it’s fun.

Copyright © 2014 Peter Fritze

Buy The Case for Killing here (Canada) or here (U.S.).

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