It’s a myth that writers of fiction do not conduct research, sometimes very extensive research, when penning their novels or short stories. Sometimes we find the research part more enjoyable than the writing part. I often become distracted with research because as they say, truth is stranger than fiction, which is probably why reality TV is so popular.
The Internet and World Wide Web (they are not the same) have provided many of us with the ability to research without leaving our homes or even getting out of our pajamas. But how does one know that the information found on these platforms, or even from a conversation with a supposed expert, is truthful? As the recent firestorm over newscaster Brian Williams has shown, even if you were there – and the issue of credibility aside - your facts might not be as factual as you thought. Then there is the whole Chris Kyle (American Sniper) and Jessie Ventura debacle.
The term literary license is often thrown around to cover up many issues of fact in fiction, because after all it is fiction, but one of the comments often cited in book reviews is how realistic the concept of a story is or how believable the characters are for the reader. If a writer describes how something works as part of a story, say an airplane, then they probably should have their relevant facts correct. The airplane that we board for a commercial flight and the helicopters that take tourists over the Grand Canyon are both referred to as aircraft but they operate very differently.
So, what’s a fiction writer to do?
Well, I recommend that everyone always use multiple sources to conduct research and while it’s often looked down upon by universities and librarians, Wikipedia.org is one place to start. Notice I said a place to start. In fact, look up aircraft on Wikipedia.org and see the results to include additional references. I think Wikipedia.org does a good job of introducing a multitude of information to the masses but since it isn’t vetted according to academic standards it is often frowned upon as a reference.
Unless someone has been living under a rock or in an environment such as North Korea, we’re all familiar with search engines such as Google, but you have to be aware that search engine algorithms are designed to return results based on a number of factors to include advertising revenue. This makes the ranking of the results subject to influences that may be hidden to the searcher and very few of us page through all the results, let alone get past the first page of results. This is one of the reasons I like Wikipedia.org.
Just because someone is a writer of fiction, doesn’t mean that they don’t have to check facts or conduct research, but in the end, it’s how believable your story and characters are within the context of your voice that will pull readers in. Jules Verne springs to mind as a writer who was able to capture the reader’s attention with stories about things that didn’t exist at the time. It is amazing how visionary he, Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek) and Dick Tracy turned out to be and they didn’t have the multitude of resources we have today.
YouTube and Ted Talks (ted.com) also provide some amazing opportunities for a writer to flesh out the potentially fact-based issues for their fiction, and don’t overlook trade associations or professional organizations that exist. For example, the American Booksellers Association exists to protect and promote the interests of independent retail book businesses and as is the case with most everyone and everything these days they have a website. So, if you have a character who is an independent bookstore owner facing the challenges of a big chain store coming to the area you would be able to use this resource. Oh, wait, that story line was already done. Of course, you could put a different twist on it.
Then there’s the Wayback Machine! Look it up.