Research – plausibility

I was bouncing around to the various writing boards and found this particular question noteworthy:

Do you care more about the author suspending belief in the laws of nature or our man-made laws of society? Or both? Or neither?

Hoo boy, talk about a publisher’s nightmare. Readers are soooo smart and savvy, and there is nothing worse for a publisher when caught with their Victoria Secrets down around their ankles. If a story isn’t labeled science fiction or fantasy, where the laws of physics and, well, every other law as well, can be manipulated into whatever you want it to be, there is a responsibility to remain as factual as possible.

And this involves research.

Suspension of disbelief has its limits. How many of us have been engrossed with a story only to have something pop up that makes us groan, “There is no way that happens in real life?” Things like, according to our resident lawyer and author Donna Ballman, a lawyer can’t change sides in mid-case. Legally, it can’t happen. Or, as one author put in on the writer’s board, ice that sinks.

Many readers may gloss over it, never aware of the lack of plausibility, or they may throw the book across the room because their suspension of disbelief just took a U-turn.

Contract with your readers – trust

Many writers may shrug and say, “who cares? It’s all about the story, so what’s the big deal about a little muff up here and there?” Well, a lot. I believe writers have an unspoken contract with their readers, and it goes like this:

If you read my book, you can be assured that I researched every bit of information that’s in here.

This is a sign of respect for your readers and yourself. You’re telling the world that you care enough about them and your integrity to get it right. I write medical fiction, and I spent nearly a year researching every facet of my book and asking author, surgeon David Page, author of the brilliant Body Trauma, to keep me factually correct. The ultimate compliment was being at author events and doctors asking me at author events what kind of medicine I practice.

On the flip side, we once had an author whose main character had MS. I’d read it and thought, ok, she’s got MS. My editor, however, has MS and was furious at the way the character was depicted. The author got everything wrong. I asked the author how this could be. Her reply was that she hadn’t really bothered to research MS and didn’t think it was a big deal.

Well, hell’s bells, it certainly is a big deal to the millions of people with MS, who may read the book. She unwittingly broke her contract to her readers. She basically said, “I don’t respect you – or me – enough to get my facts right.”

Since the whole story was wrapped around this character’s MS, the story fell apart. There was no story. I learned a tough lesson that day. Had my editor not had MS and known better, this book would have been the laughing stock of my lineup. Hardly good for credibility – for the author, or for us.

It’s not just your neck on the line

“You?” you ask? You betcha. Us – the publisher. Just recently Holt had to pull a book off the shelves due to the questionable veracity of the author and his sources. I hate to even guess what that cost them. While Holt will be able to absorb the blunder, a massive recall could put a small indie trade press out of business in under five seconds. So before you get upset at your editor for questioning the authenticity of that Catholic ceremony in Chapter 14 – yes, the very ceremony that’s pivotal to the plot, keep in mind they bear the financial brunt of your lack of research.

This is also about trust. If you get something wrong – a big thing, like performing an emergency heart transplant in the ER – you’ve breached your reader’s trust. How likely are they going to be to trust anything else in your book? If they no longer trust what you’re telling them, then what do you think the reviews will be? In short, their suspension of disbelief just got blown out of the water.

The point  is this: There is always someone who knows more than you about any given subject, so it’s your duty to get it right. Some may gloss over it and forgive you. Others will deride you and say nasty things about your book.

13 Responses to Research – plausibility

  1. Clothdragon says:

    I have been on an SVU binge lately. I didn’t follow until recently and found that Netflix has all the old episodes on instant download so I’ve been watching and watching — so the other day (for me, a year or two ago for people who watched when they played on television) there was a car accident where Stabler’s very pregnant wife was in a car accident. It was bad enough they pulled her out strapped to an immobilization board.

    But for the parts that were hard to believe, they let the policewoman with her climb back into the crushed car to do first aid rather than sending one of the Emergency Responders, including teaching her verbally, and in two seconds, how to insert an IV with such helpful instructions as ‘push harder.’ Then, without further testing on that spine they originally seemed so worried about, they help her sit up on the ambulance ride into the hospital to deliver the baby.

    I have absolutely no first responder knowledge and I do know that babies choose when they come out, but still, the whole thing seemed very unrealistic. I’m sure that if I had court room or police procedure knowledge I’d be angry at other parts of the show, but even being entirely ignorant, this part really bothered me. Either she’s so close to death that we have to keep her strapped to a bed or she’s well enough she can curl into a c-shape to deliver a child.

    At least check her spine. Check on the bleeding. Shine a flashlight into her eyes. Do something to make it look like her near-death state wasn’t simply forgotten for the drama of delivering a baby in an ambulance.

    And I could be wrong. It could be that this is exactly what they’d do. But it felt so wrong.

    So, yes, realism and research. But also explanations if it’s something that might seem off to someone ignorant.

  2. TV commonly gets stuff wrong because they depend on the other action and stars to keep pulling you back week after week. Also, they do have that forgiveness factor of coming back the next week and actually showing a realistic episode.

    It’s for that reason I quit watching CSI-NY. As much as I adore Gary Sinise, they are one of the worst offenders of plausibility.

    Books, OTH, have one bite at the apple.

  3. Scott says:

    I did a post about suspension of disbelief last week. In reading sci-fi/fantasy, a respectable amount of suspension of disbelief is, in my opinion, required. So, I’m reading along and all of a sudden – BAM – my suspension of disbelief goes winging out the window. The character did something so totally outrageous that I was pulled out of the story. It just didn’t make sense. It was almost as bad as the gaping plot hole in a movie I watched recently. Why doesn’t somebody catch these things?

    Great post.


    p.s. The beagle was staring at me with those white eyes last night. Not good, not good at all!

  4. Sorry, Scott. Nothing makes her day more than knowing she’s freaked someone out. She does this to me on a daily basis, so it only seems fair to share, don’t you think?

  5. You’d think with 1.1 million lawyers out there writers would want to put out a product they want to read instead of something they want to fling across the room. I really can’t stand lazy writing. Most of these issues can be fixed easily with about 10 minutes of research and creativity.

  6. Scott says:

    This whole sharing thing is getting way out of hand. : )

  7. That’s the thing, Donna [and well said, btw], no one appreciates lazy writing. Any writer is a fool if they crank out a story or scene knowing full well it won’t stand up to scrutiny.

  8. Voidwalker says:

    Hey there,

    I’m still here. Haven’t had as much time to post or comment, but I’m still dropping by to see what you’re posting.

  9. NinjaFingers says:

    I’m going to take one minor piece of…what’s the word…I’m a writer and I can’t remember a word.

    Your post implies speculative fiction writers don’t have to do any research. I’m going to call you on that one ;).

    I have been thrown out of many lower end fantasy novels by having somebody do something with a horse that is simply…wrong. It seems fantasy writers fall into two groups: 1. Avid riders who know everything and really focus on get it right and 2. People who don’t know which end you offer the carrots to. I’ve also seen fantasy writers who don’t understand anything about sword fighting. Or injuries. I’ll give you anachronisms if its secondary world (For example, the Chinese had the crossbow in the third century BC…long before the west did). A different culture might well have firearms and not crossbows, for example. But you need a grounding in some level of reality to support the magic.

    And if you’re going to write science fiction…at the very least you need to know the laws of physics well enough to break them.

  10. Your post implies speculative fiction writers don’t have to do any research.

    We’re splitting hairs here, Ninja, and I blame myself for not being clearer. You said exactly what I should have said and meant to say: If you’re going to write SF/Fantasy, you need to understand the laws of physics well enough to break them.

    Duly noted and am now headed for a time-out.

  11. Cat says:

    I wanted to write something about a lighthouse once and found I actually needed to read a book about lighthouses. There was no way I was going to use all the information in it but I needed to know in order to write the rest of it responsibly. If anyone had actually told me I would ever read a book about lighthouses I would have looked at them and said, “No way” but it is always quite amazing how much research can go into a relatively simple plot. This one was for children and that made it even more important to get it right!

  12. Cat, you bring up a really good point; we need to over-research so we know what information is pertinent to our story and what isn’t. That attention to detail and depth can serve to bring out a much richer story because you can stick those tidbits in around your story.

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