Research: When in Doubt, Make It Up

Research: When in Doubt, Make It Up

Research: When in Doubt, Make It UpWriters have mixed opinions on research. Some love it; some hate it. Either way, you can’t deny its necessity. If you want to present realistic settings and authentic characters, you have no choice but to go digging for answers. But what happens when answers are nowhere to be found?

I’m a bit of a research junkie, as anyone can attest who has seen the mountains of books I bring home from the library during research jags before writing a book.

Novel Research for Wayfarer by K.M. Weiland

My research pile for my historical super hero novel Wayfarer, since in 1820 London.

Behold the Dawn (Amazon affiliate link)

If there’s an avenue of research within my grasp, I’m sure to take it: books, letters, movies, documentaries, museums, online forums, you name it. Research is always time-intensive, often difficult, and occasionally frustrating. But it’s always worth it in the end, when a reader comments on the verisimilitude of my medieval setting in Behold the Dawn, or the fact that they can almost taste the biplane fuel after reading Storming.

Storming (affiliate link)

But what readers don’t always know is that for every realistic detail I dug up during my research, I probably made up two while writing.

How can I get away with this? Or, perhaps, the question should be: How dare I get away with this?

What Happens if You Can’t Research Something?

Writers aren’t omniscient. Even if we’ve personally experienced whatever it is we’re writing about—autumn in New York City, saddling a horse, crash landing in the Amazon—we’re not going to remember every detail perfectly. And if we haven’t experienced what we’re writing about (I’ve never been Palestine or Syria, and I’ve never flown a biplane), we’re inevitably going to mess up details without even realizing it.

But you know what? That’s okay. As long as you’ve exhausted your avenues of research, and as long as you’ve got a little chutzpah on your side, you can fake what you don’t know, and readers will never notice the glue between the cracks.

In her September 2010 Writer’s Digest article, Elizabeth Sims concurs:

You’re writing a key scene, and you realize that you really need to know something, but it’s either impossible to find out or too costly in time or money to do so. … If you can’t find the exact data you need, get as close as you can and wing the rest… We [authors on a conference panel] all agreed on one thing: When the chips are down, make it up.

Responsibility vs. Imagination in Research

As a writer, you have a responsibility to accurately portray the worlds of your stories. Accuracy is important not only in sustaining suspension of disbelief, but also in creating stories that ring true. After all, good fiction is always about discovering what is true about life.

Study, research, dig through facts like crazy to get to those nuggets of truth—those telling details—that will bring your story to life. But, at the end of the day, don’t forget you’re a fiction writer. The whole point of fiction is making things up.

So, when those chips are down, and you’ve no idea what every inch of the terrain on your character’s journey looks like, or what the inner workings of an atomic bomb consist of, just pretend you know what you’re talking about.

Most readers won’t even blink twice.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What’s something you used your imagination to write about convincingly, rather than researching it? 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.


  1. omg! Hooray again for KM! I actually was running into this dilemma just now and considering the acceptability of historic fudging. 😀 lol–yay! Me: it is FICTION after all…

  2. A good portion of my second book is based in and around Manassas VA and Washington DC. I’ve been to DC before, a very long time ago, but I’ve never been to Manassas. To accurately portray the area I googled and pulled as much information off the internet as I could find…and I think I did a pretty good job.

    Here’s the thing. In my opinion to do a top-notch job I would have to travel to Manassas and soak in the atmosphere of the city to add more dimension and flavor to my descriptions. But is it worth the expense of traveling to do that research if your just an unpublished author clinging to a dream? Where do you draw the line?

  3. @LTM: Depending on the extent of your fudging, you may want to make a short explanation of what you changed, what really happened, and why you changed it, so readers know where you’re coming from.

    @DL: I actually think that sometimes authors do a better job representing a place when we *haven’t* been there. It’s far too easy to become attached to and unobjective about a place. For my upcoming fantasy Dreamers, I researched the Chicago setting exclusively on the Internet. It must have worked, because I had beta readers express surprise when they discovered I’ve never actually been to Chicago.

  4. We can also do minimal research before we write, just to ensure we know Michigan is in the United States.

    Do just enough so the scene, etc., is pretty correct. Then, as you write, if you need to get facts, data or whatever, just pound in a marker such as ** or ~~ and research it later.

    You get a really good bang for your research buck.

  5. The writing schedule I’ve found most productive is: brainstorm, outline, research, write. Once I’ve written the outline, I have a pretty good idea what questions I need to answer in my research phase. Definitely helps to have a few guidelines!

  6. I love Harlan Coben’s disclaimer in at least one of his forewords: “This is fiction. I get to make stuff up.”

    I’m a stickler for accuracy, but sometimes you have to either fudge for the sake of the story, or wing it. However, if I know something about the subject, I do get irritated if it’s blatantly wrong. Hence my being a stickler for accuracy!

    The trickiest part is knowing what you don’t know, so you can try to look it up.

    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  7. Excellent point. I know I’ve certainly had moments in which I’ve been blithely writing along, thinking I knew what I was talking about – only to have to correct an important detail later.

  8. oh dear…I do believe this AND yet if I’m reading something I know about and the details are wrong – I just hate it! So I’m never sure myself what part to make up and what part not to. I mean the fictive world a writer creates has to be coherent even if it is a planet where there are no men and lots of chocolate, well one has to still have it all make sense within those boundaries. If I don’t know too much then I’m happy with the made-up stuff – I’m reading Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle at present and it is full of the real, surreal, and real made-up! But he is brilliant and I don’t care. Thanks again for the food for thought.

  9. I definitely don’t recommend fudging on anything big, because there *are* people who will notice. But if you absolutely have to fudge, the key is to do it fearlessly.

  10. Huh. That actually gives me confidence! Maybe I’ll be looking into trying my hand at political thrillers–one genre I love as a reader but it intimidates me as a writer!

  11. If it’s a genre you’re very familiar with as a reader, you already probably have a good sense of what rings true and what doesn’t.

  12. This post hits home for me right now. I’m working on a story (originally just a short story, but it’s taken on a life of it’s own, so who knows how long it will end up) set in ancient Rome. I did what I thought was a lot of research after I did a rough outline but before I started writing. Turns out I missed a few small details… I’ve either left blanks to be filled in or marked details to be checked with *’s.

    I know I can find most of these details in either a) my enormous “History of the World” book OR b) Wikipedia (and the references therein).

    I’d already decided to just fudge whatever I couldn’t find. ^_^ It’s nice to know (for certain) that published authors do that too.


  13. When you make the educated decision to fudge on details you can’t find elsewhere, you do have to be prepared for the inevitable reader who knows more than you. Suspense author Joseph Finder commented in an article that he still gets angry letters from readers who spotted a mistake he made regarding the safety on a pistol in one of his books.

  14. I read about Joseph Finder and his alert readers. 😉 I’m currently researching something for my WIP because Connor demands it’s the way it should be. It’s new territory for me, and if I have to fudge part of it, I hope not too many people will notice. 🙂

  15. When possible, I always like to find a beta reader who’s an expert in the field of my research. If they put their stamp of approval on my work, I know it will pass muster. If not, they can usually help fill in the blanks. Writing is very much a collaborative effort, no matter how you look at it.

  16. Great suggestion. When I get to that part of the story, I’ll see if I can find anyone willing to read it and give me their input.

  17. Yahoo! Answers and All Experts come in handy for quick questions.

  18. And with fantasy, this is even tricker. For my world, I need to soak in the atmosphere till I know what it is, not what I think it is.

  19. Fantasy is its own special challenge, since it allows us to bend reality – but still requires that the reality we offer feel truthful. That often means researching such disparate things as linguistics, battle tactics, and even ethnology.

  20. I emailed a specialist in the field, and she answered all the questions I had at the time.

  21. Gotta love in-the-know people!

  22. Of course, it also helps to have a critique partner who can set you straight on things. With one critter and two proof-readers familiar with horses, I now have confidence in all my horse scenes!

  23. Hooray for critters! :p

  24. Nice to know I can fudge if I feel the need. I recently learned a great deal about medieval swords (and what I’d always gotten wrong). I suspect the sheath that holds a sword on the back is pure Hollywood hype, but I find the concept useful and since I’m a fantasy novelist have decided to use it. I do prefer accuracy but, like everyone else here I know the story must take precidence. Thanks for the vindication. Nadine Liamson

  25. Every once in a while, we do come up against the difficulty of a fact that has been mis-portrayed so many times it becomes universally accepted by readers. (For example, you hear horses whinnying all the time in movies, in instances when they would never whinny in real life.) So then when you discover the truth and try to implement it in a story, people can still think you failed in your research, when, really, just the opposite is true!

  26. I don’t enjoy research, but I can do it. I like how you gave the 1:2 ration in regards to facts and imagination you use in your writing.

    Great post!

  27. Of course, that’s just a made-up ratio. I really don’t know how it all evens out, but you get the idea!

  28. The research is such fun, and a fabulous tool for the procrastinator. I could research five books at once and never get round to writing one of them…

  29. I love the research to pieces – but I love writing more. Research is like watching a movie; writing a book is like living it!

  30. Some topics are more fluid than others, definitely. My experience and perception of autumn in New York might be different from someone else’s; what a born-and-bred northerner finds pleasantly warm might be chilly to a southerner. And when one of my characters is going through something I haven’t experienced, I don’t feel I need to learn what the experience is like for every person out there–I just need to learn enough to really, truly figure out what it’s like for that character.

  31. To a large extent, fiction is about portraying the truth of the human experience. And, as humans, were distinctly qualified to write about that experience. Really, the most crucial part of writing anything is our willingness to discover the truth and to be painfully honest about it.

  32. It gets more interesting while writing fantasy in a made up world. I research about as many places and customs as I can to add details. But use my own imagination mainly. These two things combined adds great depths to my story.
    But I also am pretty excited and have those goose bumps whenever I think about my future writing projects which consists of researching particular places of particular times.
    I, by far, love the process. It actually makes me feel like a boss, who knows what she is doing 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s my approach to fantasy as well. I base my worlds heavily in historical eras, which I research like crazy – and then diverge from wherever I feel like it.

      • A really fun part of the writing process. But because of its length, the family inflicted deadlines gets annoying 🙁
        My mother is WAY too excited about my first book and always ask me when will it be written and be publishable. Just a funny beginner writers problem

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          It’s a good problem! But don’t let others pressure you into finishing before you’re ready. Every story has to take its own time.

  33. Thank you for this post because I have a habit of trying to research almost every little thing I don’t know or aren’t sure about, and sometimes while I’m writing my draft. Lol. But like you said, in some cases we have to make things up.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There’s a time and a place for rabid research. 😀 However, one thing I definitely like to do is create an assigned research “period,” so that I’m not interrupting my writing time by running off to Google every five minutes or so.

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