Friday, August 29, 2014

Research: The Problem With Cutting Corners #writing

I have a friend who lives for research. Digging up details is half her job and she's good at it. I, on the other hand, prefer to sit back and let her tell me what she found. My affection for research ended with my master's program. If you're like me it's tempting to cut corners and find the most consolidated (and if possible entertaining) source so you can get back to writing.

That brings up an obvious option - television.

courtesy of Pixabay

If you want to know about medical jargon watch a medical drama. If you want to know about police procedure watch a police drama. You can sit with your bowl of popcorn and a pad of paper and be entertained and educated at the same time. You could even write off the cost of a season of Grey's Anatomy on your taxes as research material. There's just one problem. It's television.

It's no secret that Hollywood and reality barely speak. Hollywood doesn't care about accuracy. It cares about ratings. Even so called "reality TV" shows are suspect. Footage is edited, general plots and scenarios are orchestrated, feuds are either encouraged or fabricated, and scenes are re-enacted for the benefit of the cameras. It's not created to be instructional. It's entertainment. 

What does that mean for a book based on research done by watching television? To be blunt, it means the story is wrong. Let me use the CSI franchise as an example. 

My local Romance Writers of America chapter invited a real CSI to do a presentation about proper procedure. Of course, we asked him about the show. He admitted he'd watched the first ten minutes of the first episode but that was all the cringing he could take. Apparently, the only thing the show got right was that CSI does indeed stand for Crime Scene Investigation. The rest is fabricated with the goal of making a painfully mundane job interesting enough to attract an audience. The show's procedures are wrong. Their job duties are wrong. Their equipment is the type only seen in high budget FBI labs, and then there are the vehicles.

Inaccurate spelling or grammar is a death sentence for a book but what about inaccurate content? We all know about the recent example of a story that has the details wrong but took the express elevator to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list anyway so how vital is it really?

CSI viewers will tell you it doesn't matter. They know real investigators probably don't work a crime scene in four-inch heels and two hundred-dollar pants. They know police departments don't have the money to afford Hummers or the gas to fill them. The other inaccuracies are less obvious but the size of the franchise makes it apparent few people care. I think readers can be the same way. To many of them, accurate details aren't important to a well written story with a believable premise.

Some authors will tell you research is just as important as plot. It's one of those stone-inscribed rules that cannot be broken but as we've learned in recent years, not all of those rules are vital. Some are merely tradition. How far an author goes to make sure every detail is correct depends on their own professional priorities and their tolerance for low reviews by readers who can spot the errors. To some authors, mistakes can be hidden under the title 'fiction'. The book isn't real so it doesn't have to be accurate. Others would be mortified to have their inaccuracies detailed on someone's blog.

What do you think? Is there value in spending months or even years researching before you write or is it ultimately unnecessary?

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