Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Research Makes Perfect

Tip of the day from your friendly neighborhood intern: do your research. I know, it isn’t the most fun part of writing a novel—it’s tedious and time-consuming, and you want to get to writing your story and bringing the scenes in your head to life (although in theory you’re writing about something that interests you, so hopefully the research isn’t too boring). But trust me, it’s worth it.

One thing I cannot caution you enough on is the use of foreign languages in your books. I love the use of other languages in things I’m reading, I really do. I get excited. But I hate when they’re used incorrectly. And since I speak a couple of other languages conversationally, I often notice.

An example completely unrelated to my work here, so as not to offend anyone: at the pet store I work at, I once saw a bird toy that was made of coconuts and other things latin-american-y. The company, trying to be cutesy, decided to put some Spanish slogans on it. One of them was “Mucho grande!” Mucho grande means much big. Not even in English is that okay. I was not inclined to buy that toy for my bird (yes, I do actually have a bird), and when a novel makes this mistake, I’m not inclined to sing its praises.

Don’t use an online translator. I love Google translate; it’s my best friend when I need to know a word for a class. But if you don’t know the language and can’t use discretion, don’t try. “Mucho grande” could have been fixed by a literal translation (which is part of why it annoys me SO much), but often those don’t work for the everyday slang in dialogue (which is usually when you’re using the other language).

If you really want to use another language that you don’t speak, find someone who speaks it. It’s really not that hard in this day and age; we can find anyone we want on the internet.

In general, you can’t assume your readers won’t know this or that detail, or won’t care. Some readers are going to know more than you. Some, just because they’re curious, will look things up to see if you’re right. And you want to be right. If a character in your story has a disease, make sure you know the symptoms and progression of that disease really well. If you’re writing about a different time period, make sure all of your historical facts mesh (on this note, I also want to mention that it’s really okay for characters to have beliefs that mesh with their time period, not ours. Sure, we don’t want them to be bigots, but realistically, women’s rights (for example) didn’t come along until fairly recently. Not every guy from history has to be gung-ho for equality to make them a good guy. They just have to be good. And, you know. Not a complete bigot.).

Sometimes, readers even like to learn (gasp!). If you’ve done enough research on your topic (or even have enough background knowledge), you don’t have to stop at the simple, basic information. You don’t want a list of facts, of course, but if you can slip some interesting tidbits into dialogue or narration, it can add to the story. Be careful about it (remember what I said before about dialogue that’s obviously just there to tell the reader something? “Did you know that the leaning tower of Pisa took almost two centuries to build, and it started leaning after only a couple years of construction? But they stopped building it for almost a century so that the earth could settle underneath and it wouldn’t fall. It’s the campanile, or free-standing tower, for the cathedral in Pisa.”), but if it fits naturally into the story, go for it. This is why I love historical fiction; I love learning new things.

I thought this was going to be a fairly short post, but I don’t seem to be able to stop when I start rambling. I’ll cut myself off. Good luck and keep writing!

-Katie

2 comments:

Glynis said...

I love the research side of writing my ms. I have learned quite a few pieces of interesting trivia along the way.

Clover Autrey said...

What? Readers like to learn? Good post, Katie.