Authenticity vs. Accuracy: How To Ace Your Novel Research

Novel Research: 12 Ways to Ace Your Book

Authenticity vs. Accuracy: How To Ace Your Novel Research

I’m starting to get paranoid. It happens with every book I write. I reach the end of the first draft, start tying off loose ends on the first round of edits, and prepare to send the book to my first round of beta readers. That’s when I inevitably start asking myself panicked questions about the accuracy of of my novel research.

Maybe these self-directed questions will sound familiar:

  • What if my novel research isn’t good enough?
  • What if I put a street on the wrong side of the city?
  • What if I’ve got the dialect all wrong?
  • What if I’ve included a glaring anachronism?

The book I’m currently at work on—my historical superhero saga Wayfarer—is set in London during the Regency era (think Jane Austen). In many ways, it has been the most difficult of all the historical novels I’ve written, primarily because it takes place in such a popular period. I had some leeway in writing about the medieval Crusades (for one thing, the language is so different, perfect accuracy isn’t desired much less demanded) and the American west (where legend has taken over fact in so many areas).

But the Regency period? Put a chapeau-bras out of place, and fanatical readers will know it.

Never mind that the book is also set in London, which means correctly portraying a city I’ve never visited.

And don’t get me started on the language. Unlike the Middle Ages, 1820 isn’t so far away that the language of the period isn’t still decipherable to modern ears. What that means, of course, is every word choice must be filtered through not just the demands of British English, but also the question: Did that word even exist back then?

Cue the paranoia.

Novel research can make you paranoid!

The Two Sides to Novel Research: Accuracy and Authenticity

There are two good reasons for any author to indulge in this paranoia over “the facts” in a novel (whether it’s historical or not).

Reason #1 to Panic: Your Readers Are Smarter Than You

Scary thought, ain’t it? Now granted, not all of them are going to be smarter (aka, better read on your subject than are you). But I guarantee there will be a lot of them. No matter how conscientious you are in your research about Roman sewer systems or stamp collecting, there will always be someone who knows something you don’t. And if that person happens to read your book, they may well call you out on your mistakes.

Reason #2 to Panic: Poor Novel Research Destroys Suspension of Disbelief

This reason is by far the more important of the two, however closely related. The whole point of novel research, after all, is to create a seamless reading experience. We want to immerse readers in the detailed and realistic worlds we create for our characters. If you’ve got your Olympic equestrian character casually mounting her horse on the right side (instead of the left), you’re going to instantly pop that suspension of disbelief bubble for any reader knowledgeable about horses and riding.

Commit to Accuracy in Your Novel Research

In short, blatant inaccuracies can ruin your book. So do your research. End of story. Stop panicking.

Does this sound too simple a solution after all that fear mongering up there?

Maybe a little. But let’s be practical.

There is absolutely no way you can achieve perfect accuracy in your novel.

Never mind what Yoda says, the best you can do is try. After that, stop worrying about accuracy and start worrying about … authenticity.

Yoda Do or Do Not Meme Only Sith Deal in Absolutes

Why Authenticity Is More Important Than Accuracy

A story, by its very nature, is an illusion.

The characters aren’t real. The events aren’t real. The settings and events–even if portraying real life– are Shakespeare’s “but shadows.”

The best of this kind are but shadows and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them. Midsummer's Night Dream Shakespeare

That’s why readers must suspend their disbelief in the first place. And they do. They willingly buy into the magic trick–as long as the magician (that’s you!) makes it look real.

By far, the most important factor in convincing readers to suspend disbelief is creating a story world that seems real. Readers aren’t asking for reality; they only want something that seems real enough for them to pretend, for a couple hours, that it is real.

That’s where authenticity comes into play. As long as you have accuracy enough to provide a solid basis for your story, you then have a wide-open canvas upon which to create the illusion of an authentic experience.

To put it indelicately: Hook your readers with the truth and they’ll swallow all the rest of your story’s lies.

How can you find this balance of accuracy and authenticity in your book? Let’s examine twelve steps you can put into action right away.

6 Steps to Achieve Accuracy in Your Novel Research

Novel research is easy. All you have to do is read and remember. But it requires time and discipline upfront. Use these six steps to break your task into manageable bites.

1. Begin With a Basic Understanding of Your Subject

Presumably, if you’re interested in writing about a particular subject, then that very interest has led you to at least a basic knowledge about it. For example, if you want to write about a homicide detective, then you might have been drawn to the subject because you enjoy TV shows about detectives. You know enough to at least create the framework, in your mind, for a story about a detective of your own.

Castle Nathan Fillion Stana Katic Season 1

2. Discover the General Questions You Need to Ask

Using that general knowledge, from Step 1, write your outline–or, if you’re a pantser, at least figure out the general beats and events in your story. This will help you get a handle on the general questions you’re going to need to answer about your subject. For example, after writing my outline for my 1920s barnstorming novel Storming, I ended up with a list of specific research topics I knew I would need to research:

Stoming Novel Research Subjects

3. Collect a Bibliography

Using those questions/topics, create a research bibliography. Search your local libraries and Amazon to find sources that will answer all your major questions. Depending on the nature of your subject, you may also want to seek out experts with whom you can talk or who can give you access to hands-on experiences.

4. Commit Serious Time to Novel Research

Writers often ask me how much time I devote to novel research. Basically: as long as it takes me to read through my list of research books. Wayfarer‘s research took me six months.

And where do I find the time to do all that research?

Easy: writing time. Whatever part of the process I’m working on (whether outlining, researching, writing, or editing), I do it during “writing” time, which for me is two hours every morning. This, of course, means that during the research period, I get to sit around reading all morning and call it work.

Novel Research for Wayfarer by K.M. Weiland

5. Organize Novel Research Notes

Don’t trust your memory. Write down everything. Personally, I find it well worth the extra time it requires to transcribe everything I highlight in my novel research (e-readers make this super easy, since you can find all your highlights online and simply copy/paste them).

Kindle Highlights

This makes my notes searchable on the computer and allows me to collate them under pertinent headings. Your research will do you little good while writing if you can’t access it. (Plus, you can use your discoveries as part of your book marketing campaign to tease readers about your upcoming novels.)

6. Discover the Specific Questions You Need to Ask

Armed with all that general knowledge you gleaned during your novel research, you can then write your book. You should be well equipped to write knowledgeably and confidently about your subject. Even still, you’ll inevitably run into further questions during the blow-by-blow action of the actual story. Some of these questions will be simple enough for you to look up on the Internet during writing. For those that prove more complicated, include them in a running list and do whatever follow-up research is necessary after the first draft.

6 Steps to Achieve Authenticity in Your Novel Research

All that research was your logical left brain’s contribution to your story’s verisimilitude. Now, it’s time to unleash your creative right brain and let it take the scattered pieces of your research and connect the dots between them to creative an authentic experience for your readers.

1. Do Your Research

Authenticity must begin with a pursuit of accuracy. You can’t build an authentic experience of life as a concert pianist if you know nothing about music. Emphasizing authenticity over accuracy does not provide permission to simply ignore the facts. You must start with a solid foundation of reality if you’re going to have any chance of convincing readers to believe in the unreal parts of your story.

Amadeus Tom Hulce Piano

2. Support Every Lie With Two Truths

In writing any kind of story, you will occasionally find yourself faced with situations in which you either don’t know the facts or in which the story demands you tweak the facts to serve the plot.

In either case, here’s a good rule of thumb for protecting the authenticity of your story: Every time you make something up, make sure the “lie” is supported by at least two “truths.”

Historical novels do this all the time by surrounding a fictional character with people who actually existed in the period. We believe in Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, so why not a general named Maximus while we’re at it?

Russell Crowe Richard Harris Joaquin Phoenix Gladiator

3. Show Readers What They Expect to See

The very essence of authenticity is in validating the experience readers expect to have. Did Al Capone really say, “I want him dead! I want his family dead! I want his house burned to the ground!”?

Robert De Niro Untouchables Al Capone I Want Him Dead

Doesn’t matter, because this is exactly what we expect Al Capone to say. It creates no cognitive dissonance in our expectations about 1920s gangsters.

The flipside of this is that sometimes you will find you can’t use certain accurate facts. If a fact doesn’t jive with your readers’ expectations, then you need to question whether its (totally legitimate) inclusion is worth the risk of jostling their suspension of disbelief.

Sweet on You Meddlin Madeline Chautona HavigChristian novelist Chautona Havig commented to me on Facebook,

Funny story. In researching my 1901 novel, I was trying to be careful to use slang of the day, syntax–everything. We try, right? Well, I found that even innocent things they WOULD have said sound much too modern. Such as, “You have the coolest yard in town.” Um… sounds all wrong.

4. Don’t Sweat the Details

Remember my paranoia over Wayfarer‘s presentation of an accurate 1820 London experience?

On this last edit, I’ve been conscientiously researching the etymology of any word I thought might be suspicious. That’s a lot of suspicion. It’s also, after a certain point, ridiculous.

Can you tell me what’s “wrong” with this excerpt?

He had no notion life wasn’t always a long journey to a distant horizon. Sometimes it ended in a blink, in a blur of fire and pain.

Turns out “blink” and “blur” didn’t mean then what they mean now.

Now, Emma Woodhouse may not have been able to “blink” away the tears that “blurred” her eyes after Mr. Knightley gave her what for. But I gotta tell you: my protagonist totally does. Even though these words aren’t accurate within the historical setting, I would be shocked to discover any reader who noticed, much less took exception, to them.

As an author, you must occasionally make the call to depart from the smaller details of accuracy, for the sake of your overall story. Don’t sweat the details too much. It is fiction, after all.

5. Maintain Consistency

Here’s the secret to authenticity: it must walk hand in hand with consistency. Indeed, consistency is the whole point. It’s why we avoid every detail that might jar–even if it’s an accurate detail. It’s why we don’t sweat the little, unrecognizable errors. As long you’re presenting your story’s truth with absolute consistency, readers will buy into it with little effort.

6. Show Your Bravado

Finally, be brave. Trust in your skill to create an authentic experience for your readers, and trust in that experience to help readers glide right past the places where you’ve sacrificed absolute accuracy for the sake of the bigger picture.

As any magician knows, you have to sell the performance. If you look like you believe 100% in the illusion you’ve created, readers will be all the more likely to follow your lead and believe in it themselves.

Brad Dennison Long Trail McCabeBut also be wise. Sometimes, no matter how perfect a word is to a scene, it still won’t belong, as in western writer Brad Dennison‘s tongue-in-cheek comment to me:

The things you wish you could include in a story. In the western I’m working on now, Johnny McCabe … didn’t even know [his brother] Joe was in the area. … Johnny says to him, “How is it I didn’t see you out there?” Joe says, “Ain’t a man alive can find me if I don’t want to be found.” I would so like to have Johnny say, “What are you, Batman?”

The balance between accuracy and authenticity is ultimately the balance of the entire story. If your mastery of authenticity is strong enough to convince readers to suspend their disbelief, then they’ll forgive–and even embrace–your occasional lapse of accuracy.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What has been the most difficult part of your novel research? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I found the internet quite useful in researching for my writing, especially with my last novel. I needed to know how an Uzi worked and the only time I fired one was when I was in the service more than 30 years ago. I was able to look at a clip on line and see one fired so that gave me what I needed to know. I found other things as well.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The Internet is great for gun and machine info. That is one thing I usually remember to use YouTube for.

      • How did we writers ever live without it? The only place you can look up what “that thing you use to do whatsit” is called.

  2. For a while, I’ve been working on a science fiction/fantasy story that has A LOT of different environments, characters, technology-levels, etc. I think it’s a common misconception among non-writers that if you write speculative fiction — particularly fantasy — you don’t have to do any research, that you can simply make up everything and it will be fine. However, any writer worth their salt knows that this couldn’t be further from the truth. I will make no claim that speculative fiction requires more research than any other genre, but it certainly can have just as much as any historical fiction novel; which is saying something, considering the amount of work historical fiction writers put into their work.
    I’m definitely not an expert on the art of researching for writing, seeing as I am young and inexperienced in life in general, but I found a researching strategy that works well for me at least. With all the different planets and characters in my story, it gets hard to keep track of all the research and ideas I have for specific ones. So, (this is going to sound weird, I can feel it) I use the Pinterest secret boards to store all my research. I’ve created a board for each of my planets and characters. Then, when I do research online for one aspect of whatever setting or character I’m researching at the moment, I can pin the website to the board and type up a short summary of the information or some tags so I can find it again very quickly using the search engine.
    I don’t know if this is the best way, but it’s worked so far; plus it sure makes me happy to see all that research work lined up in perfectly straight columns!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely agree with this. I do a lot of research for my fantasy novels, even though I don’t have to be as rigidly factual.

  3. Joe Long says:

    I wrote a short preface in present day, then the rest is a flash back to 1979. I minimized my research by sticking to the area I grew up in, in a time when I was a teenager.

    It’s fun to write about a recent time when the technology was different. The house had one TV and maybe two telephones (you had to make sure someone wasn’t eavesdropping on the other extension). No computers and only a wrist watch to tell time while on the move.

    Then there was trying to get an authentic dialect without going overboard. I slip in some iconic words, but try to avoid alternate pronunciations. How would I easily let the readers know that ‘wash’ is said as ‘worsh’?

    Still, this week I was thinking of given names for new characters and realized even that’s changed. I’ll go through some high school yearbooks from our area at that time and make a list of the names people were giving their children in the late 50’s and early 60’s.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      My last book was set in my hometown. It was such a change from the far-flung (and usually imaginary) settings I typically write, and it was a ton of fun!

      • Joe Long says:

        I’m an INTP, so I just have to look something up and then tell you about it!

        My HS, classes of 1977-1979, most common names (7 or more instances, in descending order)

        Susan, Debbie, Cindy, Kathy, Mary (Ann, Jane, Jo, Kay), Barbara, Carol, Kim, Lisa, Nancy, Michelle, Patty

        Dave, Mark, Jim, Jeff, Mike, Bob, John, Tom, Dan, Rick, Ron, Scott, Steve

        Should’ve done it earlier for my own WIP, but for a particular location/time period, I can see making a list like this, and when you need a name for a character, pick one off the list.

        We also have a good number of eastern European families that live here, so when I decided to give one of my characters a Serbian surname, I checked carefully to match the given name, that it wasn’t Croatian or whatever (which someone would get offended over)

  4. I am working on my first novel which is realistic fantasy about Ireland and the fairie faith. I need to be accurate about an American teen suddenly moved to live in Ireland with a rural Grandmother who strongly believe in fairies. The realism comes in where I want the Tuatha de Dannan to be a race that could manipulate matter and shape shift using advanced quantum physics. My biggest problem comes from that fact that that period and that of druidism have such limited real facts. It should make it easier to write but there is so much out there that has already been fantasized and I don’t want this to sound like a typical fairy fantasy story. Is there anyone out there who can tell me more about Ireland than I can find on the internet and in books on the fairy faith?

Trackbacks

  1. […] as K.M. Weiland stresses in her great post on writing historical fiction, even more than getting the facts right (which you need to do), what […]

  2. […] Novel Research: 12 Ways to Ace Your Book […]

  3. […] than two thousand years. This presented its own special set of challenges (see K.M. Weiland’s great blog post for some tips on writing historical fiction), but it felt right so I scrapped the first draft […]

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  6. […] to Cut the Crap and Research Your Novel Effectively, Researching Your Novel: The Ultimate Guide, Novel Research: 12 Ways to Ace Your Book, and Fact-Checking Your […]

  7. […] Strive for accuracy but be happy with being authentic. Do the best you can to be accurate in your story. But unless you are writing non-fiction, you have wiggle room to be creative. K.M. Weiland says, Hook your readers with the truth and they’ll swallow all the rest of your story’s lies. […]

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