Once Upon A Time...

Why research doesn't suck

by LJC

Once upon a time, I spent over an hour scanning through the restaurant reviews of the Los Angeles Times, searching for just the right night spots for Cordelia Chase to mention while discussing suitable venues for a perfect first date. It occurred to me, as I scanned maps of locations and weighed the quality of the food versus the trendiness versus the starpower, it suddenly occurred to me that the show had never done this much research. Why should I?

Simple answer: because it will make the story better.

Sure, I could just make up locales and street names. Certainly for any reader outside Los Angeles, it may not matter if I made up locations, streets, and the like. However, by actually taking the time to research the city of Los Angeles, I can seed the story with those tiny details that give it a sense of realism. Research of this kind can adds depth and detail to your fiction, and help convince the reader that the world you are describing is as real as the one they inhabit, at least for the duration of the story.

When writing fan fiction for a particular series, I generally do two types of research: show related, and plot related.

Show research can be very extensive, depending on how long the series has been airing and how fleshed-out the universe is. For example, if you are writing a Star Trek: Voyager story about B'Elanna Torres' parents, for example, you would have to make sure you know what the climate was towards Klingons in the Federation thirty years earlier. Because science fiction is a period piece (albeit a period that hasn't happened yet) you need to include a higher level of detail than perhaps you would in a story set in the here and now in order to create the setting and place your narrative in the proper context. Likewise, because the Trek universe has been around for over 25 years, with 4 television series and 8 films, it's a history and mythology that has been fleshed out a great deal in those 25 years.

Unlike the original fiction writer, you must make certain that the story you are telling fits seamlessly into someone else's universe. That requires a lot of fact-checking. But more than merely keeping an eye on canon, show-related research also extends to characterisations. A writer needs to look at the sum of the characters she is using, and reproduce that character as closely as possible not just in terms of how the look or dress, but sound, think, and feel.

Show-related generally means re-watching episodes, to make certain you have your facts straight, as well as characterisations and tone. Watch and re-watch episodes that relate directly to the story you want to tell, as well as episode that focus heavily on character development. If necessary, read transcripts and script excerpts, to keep your canonical facts straight, as well as pay attention to the voices of the individual characters, and immerse yourself in their world in the hopes of being able to accurately recreate it on paper. For most folks, show-related research is less of a chore than a joy--who doesn't love re-watching their favourite episodes?

Plot related research, on the other hand, is where many authors have difficulties. Even professional writers will occasionally skimp on research, and while this approach may often only be noticeable to readers who do have a passing familiarity with the subject matter, it can completely destroy the suspension of disbelief for those readers. For example, I once flung a Mercedes Lackey novel across a room when the novel insisted that a banshee was male. I did not pick the book back up. However, while there are still many readers who might forgive shoddy research, simply doing to work in the first place avoids potentially alienating your audience.

The general rule of thumb is, when you reach a point where you can either look something up or make something up, you should always look it up first.

If the answer you find out doesn't work for you, then it's up to you to decide if you should change your story accordingly, remove that element, or decide to deliberately change that fact. But all decisions should be made knowing exactly what choice you are making. Think about it--if you are writing a story set in Los Angeles where your main character is a private detective, then it would be a good idea to find out what it takes to get a PI licence in the State of California. What you discover might actually help your story, and at the very least give you the author a knowledge of what is possible, and what can be fudged. You can't break the rules until you learn the rules.

Of course, once you've thoroughly researched your story, then your job becomes how much of that research you give the reader.

For example, if you spent three weeks in the library learning everything there is to know about 6th century Mayan burial rituals, you do not want to dump a five page history lesson in the middle of the narrative. Working facts in, and picking what facts to use, takes practice, but is always better than breaking up the flow with huge tracts of exposition.

Your research should be there to add detail to the plot and setting, not there to impress your reader with the amount of research you did. The trick is to reveal only those details that add to the setting and are relevant to the plot. Pour all that you can into your first draft, and then start looking at what needs to be there, and what you want to be there. Then pare it down even further, to see if you can still get across the most information with the least amount of exposition.

When it comes to research, the fan writer should be no different from the professional writer. In order to write the best story we are capable of writing, we have to put in the hard work. However, research does not have to be boring. It can actually be a great deal of fun, especially if you are interested in your subject, which, I'm assuming, you are since you chose to write fiction about it. And while it did take me an hour to find just the right restaurants for Cordelia to mention to Doyle, I don't feel that was an hour wasted. And I would hope my Los Angeles audience appreciates the time I took. And even if they don't, I feel better knowing I've added a little touch to bind the universe of my story to the real world of my readers.

LJC has been writing, illustrating, editing, publishing, and archiving fan fiction since 1989 in a variety of fandoms, first for print fanzines and then online. She is a professional webdesigner and freelance journalist.

Read the Once Upon a Time archives:

  • Profic vs Fanfic
  • That River in Egypt
  • Tips for writing better fan fiction
  • Enough alphabet soup!
  • A 'zine! A 'zine! My kingdom for a 'zine!
  • When is a Mary Sue not a Mary Sue?
  • My Heart Will Not Go On, Thanks...
  • Canon Fodder
  • If you can't say anything nice... come sit over here by me.
  • Why research doesn't suck
  • Whomp Upside The Head IV: Return Of The Big Stick
  • AUs and You!
  • Mall Rats
  • Reality By Consensus: The difference between canon and fanon
  • The Rain In Spain In My Ass Is a Pain : dialect do's and don'ts