Friday, September 30, 2011

Research....Or Not?

by Laura Crum

I hear a lot of authors talking about research. How they love research. How a trip to Europe can be called research and written off on one’s taxes. (That sounds very glamorous.) Sometimes research seems to mean looking things up on the internet…endlessly. (That doesn’t sound so exciting.) I have heard a well-known author say that she never writes about a country that she has not at least flown over in an airplane. (Amusing. But it left a funny taste in my mouth.)

Most recently a book was recommended to me (no, I’m not going to tell you what it was) as being a great story and “meticulously researched”. I bought the book. The underlying story was good, I’ll agree, but the book, which was exceedingly well-padded with all that meticulous research, was a very slow read and I ended up skimming it, thinking all the while, “get back to the story, dammit.” In my view the book was crammed with researched details in order to make it long enough to be a “best seller”. The actual storyline would have been much better served if the book had totaled between 100-200 pages, rather than the 300 the author relentlessly stuffed into it.

The truth is I do not care for obviously researched details in novels. I like a story to flow and not to bog down while the author shows off his/her knowledge of the subject at hand. Particularly a mystery novel.

Don’t get me wrong. I love description. I love detail. I just don’t love the stilted, wordy passages that are simply meant to convey some sort of authenticity. The ones that announce “I looked this up somewhere.” I delight in reading description that comes from the heart and reflects an author’s intimate knowledge of something he/she loves.

People often ask me what sort of research I do for my novels featuring equine veterinarian Gail McCarthy. My answer is that I don’t do research. My life is my research. This isn’t strictly true, of course, and I always have to admit that I do call my childhood friend who is deputy chief of police and pick her brain about what the cops would do under certain circumstances. And I call my old boyfriend who is now a vet and ask about the dosages for certain drugs and whether some concept I have regarding veterinary medicine is really plausible. I also ask him to tell me any interesting veterinary emergencies he’s been on lately. And this information is critical when it comes to writing realistic mystery novels. I’ve been tickled when former cops emailed to congratulate me on describing police procedure correctly, and expressed their irritation at the number of mystery novelists who apparently fail in this respect. And I have been asked numerous times if I’m a vet, quite frequently by veterinarians. So yes, I know research has it place.

But…I object, I actively object, to the notion of an author selecting a subject, or a country, he/she knows nothing about, and using it as a background/locale for a novel. The proverbial country the author has at least “flown over in an airplane” approach. A little internet research and hey presto, said author is an expert on the place or activity. That’s not the sort of novel I want to read. I’m interested in reading “been there, done that” stories written by people who really know the subject/place they are writing about (and are ideally quite passionate about it). I think the difference in the two styles of writing shines as brightly as the difference between night and day.

For me, this means writing about landscapes I know intimately, such as the central California coast and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, rather than setting a novel in Europe (which I visited once for two months and loved—but that’s not a very deep sort of knowledge). It means writing about aspects of the horse biz that I’ve actually participated in (such as cutting and roping and horse packing in the mountains) rather than setting my stories in the hunter/jumper world, say, or on the polo field. Yes, those are interesting and glamorous venues, but I really don’t know much of anything about them. My lifelong passion has been western cowhorses, and I can speak with authority and in accurate detail on this subject, having trained such horses for many years, and been a competitor in several different cowhorse events. Nowadays I mostly trail ride through the local hills, an activity I find fascinating, and these trails provide the backdrop for my latest novel, “Barnstorming”, due out this coming spring.

I’ve ridden the trails in all kinds of weather, in every season of the year. I know them as if they were my backyard, which, in a sense, they are. The steep and tricky switchbacks, the big views over Monterey Bay, the narrow singletracks through the towering redwoods—I’ve ridden them hundreds of times. I’ve met all kinds of strange and interesting things on the trails, from assorted wildlife to scary looking guys with machete in hand, and I’ve incorporated my trail adventures into my novel. So there you go, life as research.

What about the veterinary stuff, people ask me. The sad truth is that if you’ve owned horses non-stop for almost forty years, as I have, you’ve acquired a vast amount of veterinary knowledge. Horses are always having some problem or other, be it lameness or colic, or some odd injury. My husband calls it the “five horse” rule. Something is wrong with a horse at least 20% of the time, and if you have five horses or more, that means something is wrong 100% of the time. This is, unfortunately, more true than humorous. In forty years of horse ownership I have amassed enough veterinary detail to fill out my twelve mystery novels quite nicely, not even counting the things that have happened to my friends and been recounted to me. Once again, life as research.

Ok, I know many of you write—certainly my fellow authors on this blog do plenty of writing. And I'm guessing most of you who read this blog read fiction at least occasionally. What’s your opinion on research, and carefully and obviously “researched” details in novels? I love a good discussion.


Unknown said...

I don't mind a writer writing about something they don't know about whether it's a place, profession, or some other element, as long as they have done enough research to appear to know what they are talking about. But I have to agree that nothing is more boring than the info dump. I just don't care. If it isn't key to the plot or character development - I will start to skim. The last fantasy novel I read I realized about 3/4 of the way through that I had skimmed about half of it. The book would have been great with 50% less pages and words. It was just filler. But I don't think it is all on the writers, a lot of publishers started wanting bigger and bigger books to be able to justify raising the book prices. If a book is naturally one size, but your publisher wants 20,000-50,000 more words, you have to find a way to add those words. Plop in a sub-plot, sprinkle in some of that research you did, etc. Some writers naturally write longer stories, but others don't. Just my little opinion on the subject.

Laura Crum said...

Angelia--That is so true. I have been pressured to write longer novels by my publisher, but my books seem to fall naturally in a certain page length. In the end, you have to be true to the story or the publisher--tough choice.

Anonymous said...

Some authors do seem to fall in love with their research. I think it needs to be presented as part of the story. If some of it can't be used, oh well. In historical fiction it's called the "as you know Bob..." device, where a character will say "as you know Bob, when Henry VII fought Richard III on Bosworth field...." and then it goes on to give give a historical background in a way that doesn't fit the story, or sound like a conversation.

Alison said...

I LOVE research but since I write kid's books so little is actually used in the book but it is all used to make plot/characters/setting/action come alive. Redhorse, I had never heard of "as you know Bob"--love it!
Angelia--are you a new commentor? If so, welcome--I for one love folks who are writers to chime in to the usually horsey conversations. And Laura, I want to know what book it was that had tmi!

Laura Crum said...

redhorse--I, too, had never heard of "as you know, Bob," and I just love it. That is exactly what I mean--in spades.

Alison--Angelia has commented here for quite awhile. And I really don't want to bash the other author's book by name. It was very well liked by many, and I think it may just be that it wasn't to my particular taste. After all, my books are often criticized for being too short and "simple" and this is a direct result of my inclination to keep the story moving and flowing and not to "bog it down" with extra details or sub-plots. The result is books that aren't that long, and that people often say, "I couldn't put it down," or "I stayed up for several hours and finished it," but they also say, "I wish it were longer." There's a downside to everything, maybe.

Leslie said...

As a reader, I've discovered the older I get the more my attention span is shortening. Plus, I just don't read as fast as I used to, meaning my comprehension seems to be slower. I find myself re-reading passages if they don't flow. Anyway,if I get into a book where I'm feeling yadda, yadda, yadda in my head,I skim. If it continues by page 75, I usually jump to the end and close.I like writers who can weave their research into the stories and it's disguised.Writing myself,I hope to create stories that flow.

I have enjoyed Laura's books because they flow and also contain interesting information weaved into the plots.

Laura Crum said...

Leslie--I do exactly the same. If a book doesn't flow for me, I start skimming, and then I skip to the end--just like you say. Unfortunately, this happens quite frequently. The current trend is for longer novels, and I feel a great many of them are "padded" with a lot of detail/description/subplots that are simply there to make the book an "acceptable" length. No one seems to remember that the "classic" mysteries were about 200 pages. I loved those older mystery novels. They had lots of flow and really moved along. Just my opinion.

Laura Crum said...

Oh, and thank you, Leslie--very much--for the nice compliment about my books. I'm glad that you've enjoyed them.

Natalie Keller Reinert said...

Leslie and Laura, I wonder if your attention span is related less to age, and more to our growing relationship with online media, which is shorter, faster, and always coming at us? I think it's affected the way that I read, as well. I know I have less time for real books because I spend more time online, which seems silly, somehow. I should stop that.

Anyway, this very topic has been brought up to me... I write from experience, but it's really time for me to branch out, do some research, learn about new things. I don't think I could set a novel in Prague after a long weekend there, but then again, maybe I could. The backdrop is just that, the backdrop. The characters and their conflicts can hold true whether the novel is set on Mars or in SoHo.

At least, that is what I am telling myself. It's easier said than done.

Fantastyk Voyager said...

Sometimes, research is good. If it's critical to the story and the author is teaching the reader something they need to know, I'm okay with it. However, as has been said, as I get older, I tend to look for shorter reads with less text. Entertainment is usually my priority when I read and boring words just don't cut it.
I have always found your books entertaining and I can still learn/experience from them. I envy your rides in the coastal forests and Sierra Nevadas. If I can never actually do an overnight trail ride with my horses at least I can say I went on one with you. The same for cutting, roping, barrel racing, and all the rest of the cool stuff you feature in your books.

Laura Crum said...

That's a good point, Natalie. And thank you, Voyager. It means a lot to me when people tell me they appreciate my books. Like most authors, I'm not paid a lot for them, so they really are mostly a "labor of love." If someone can feel that they've "been" on a Sierra packtrip along with me because of my books, that's a pretty cool thing. My favorite novels have done this for me. When I finally went to Europe, I felt I'd been there before--because of reading so many novels that were set there. Europe felt intensely, intimately familiar--thanks to my reading. So Voyager, if you ever go on a pack trip in the Sierras, maybe it would feel familiar to you. I know for a fact that Slickrock, my pack trip book, is absolutely crammed with details--all taken from my diaries and journals, written over many years of packing and camping in those mountains.

Funder said...

I think it all depends on how well the background is woven in to the story. Some stories could be told anywhere, and it's fine if they're set in Anywhere, USA, but some stories really benefit from background. I mean, can you imagine an Annie Proulx set in Seattle? Or Harry Dresden, wizard PI of LA?

There's such a difference between "As you know, Bob, it rains in California in the winter" and actually working in the sense that everything's on hold, waiting for the winter rains to bring life to the area, etc. (redhorse - I love that "as you know Bob" thing! Too funny.)

Laura Crum said...

Funder--Don't get me wrong--I am a HUGE fan of background detail. As those who have read my books will attest, there is a ton of detail about the scenery, climate and weather of central California in my stories. Let alone all the horse details. Writing about the landscape and weather and the seasons is almost my favorite part of each book. I've written three stories (Roughstock, Slickrock, and Going, Gone) that are set at least partially in the Sierras--and Slickrock is entirely about horsepacking in the Sierras--so if you ever read that one, you can see if I got the atmosphere right, as you've done so much riding through these mountains. Believe me, there is plenty of detail/background--all of it coming from much, much time spent there over the years.

What I was objecting to in the post is detail that has obviously been researched for the purposes of writing a novel by someone who has no first-hand, personal knowledge of the subject/place at hand. In that sense I disagree with the notion of setting a novel in Prague after spending a long weekend there--unless the novel is specifically concerned with a tourist visiting Prague and what that feels like. I'm also disagreeing with the fairly common practice of "padding" a book that would be better off shorter because nowadays the trend is for longer books.

Gayle Carline said...

I don't care how the author got their knowledge of the subject/setting/details. Live it, research it, I don't care. I just don't want to SEE it in plain sight. I want to read a sentence and feel there's a wealth of info under the surface of it to make the author write that.

Laura Crum said...

Gayle--That's a great way of putting it. And maybe that's the bottom line. I don't want to read research that sounds like research.