Claiming the Facts – Researching the Ridiculous


Something about claims on labels has bothered me for years. I read them because I want to know how I might be affected by a product.

So if an antiseptic kills only “99.9%” of viruses and bacteria, I don’t want to know just the ones it kills, I want to know the remaining .1% that are left behind to threaten my wellbeing. That’s not being nit-picky, is it?


And if a bath soap recommended as gentle enough for a baby’s skin is only “99.44% pure”, is it unreasonable to be concerned about the impurities that make up the .56% balance of ingredients? After all, so many products out there offer medical solutions by being absorbed through the skin – nicotine and anti-nausea patches, to name just two – I’m hesitant about my grandchildren being exposed to even small amounts of an unknown impurity during bath time at grandma’s.


Which all goes to say how important research is… most of the time.

In a post last fall I mentioned the importance of having accurate details in our writing, and just last week in one of her posts Jody Hedlund talked about how we do our research. As I read through the responses it was obvious there are many different approaches. Some do copious amounts of research before beginning to write. Some do only what’s necessary to get started and then research for specifics as they go along. Still others do very little in the initial draft, choosing to let creativity move them along, and fill in the blanks by researching later during the revision process.

However we do it, there are two points that beg to be noticed:

  1. Whatever details we use must be correct. Readers will notice incongruities and lose faith in our credibility and our authority to tell the story. If we throw in facts of questionable accuracy during the initial writing, we need to mark them for later verification.
  2. There is only so long we can put off writing in favour of research.  While it can be tempting to stay immersed in all the fascinating data, at some point we have to push aside the books and notes, turn off the internet, and begin writing the story. It doesn’t matter how accurate the details or how authentic the setting, if the story is never told.

If you do initial research for a story, when do you know it’s time to start writing? Oh, and if you’ve run across any statistics on the missing .1% and .56% mentioned earlier, I’d love to have you share them!



Published by Carol

A freelance writer of fiction and non-fiction living on the West Coast of Canada.

12 thoughts on “Claiming the Facts – Researching the Ridiculous

  1. A topic close to my heart. 🙂 Carol, statistics was my least favorite subject in college. Like nine out of ten dentists recommend Blank toothpaste. They neglect to tell you the survey sample was eleven 🙂 Research was part of my career for over 20 years, so I am good at it, love it and know when enough it enough. Do initial research if the topic needs to include detailed descs. of things I am not familiar with. Keep Google Live to look up places, have maps of places I use frequently, but when I get into the thick of it … I write the first draft and go back to check details in the second.

  2. I enjoy research. I do it before, during, and after I write my first drafts. Before I begin a story, I get the basics down by reading a number of reference books. During the writing, I look up facts as needed. After the draft is finished, I check on facts I’m uncertain about as I self-edit.

  3. Good morning, everyone. It’s nice to find you here and sharing your ideas already. I haven’t even had my coffee yet.

    Judith – You’re no help at all! LOL! Data on those missing percentages has to be somewhere.

    Traci – Welcome! Thanks for dropping in here, and also for following me on Twitter.

    Florence – I see why statistics bother you. “Nine out of ten… in a survey sample of eleven” leaves me wondering how the eleventh participant voted! What kind of career research did you do?

    Keli – You’ve mentioned on your blog how much you love reading historical fiction, so I’m sure that’s provided a lot of good background information in addition to all the more specific research you do for a story.

  4. I research before I begin writing, and then as I work through 2nd draft, I note all the areas in the novel that need more research or backup research. On my current novel, I’ll be garnering that research for insertion in my 4th draft. I’m hoping to be able to spend 2 weeks reading and culling and then write the “missing pieces”. My Alaska novels took years and years of research, including language studies and comparisons, travel and interviews. I read more than 200 research books and articles – mostly books – as I wrote those 6 novels over a period of 20 years. What I’m currently writing requires only a few weeks of research, partly because my husband is one of my sources! That’s always convenient. I’m glad he has a lot of extraneous knowledge!

  5. Sue and Karen – Thanks for adding your thoughts here. You each have your own research methods that sound like they meet your specific needs. Personally, I can’t fathom reading 200 books in preparation for writing any of my novels, so I’m in awe of you, Sue!

  6. Yay for my scholarly younger daughter (not that the older one isn’t scholarly, too) who did some research of her own and found an article answering the .56% question. Thanks, Heather!

    The .56% was determined to be “foreign and unnecessary substances …. The impurities consisted of uncombined alkali, 0.11%; carbonates, 0.28%; and mineral matter, 0.17%. Total: 0.56%.”

  7. First of all, I should state up front that I’m a friend of germs. We spent a lot of time together when I was a kid. Having said that I should probably admit that I don’t fancy products that eliminate 100% of them. I actually believe a person needs a few germs to protect themselves. Germs protect us from other germs. And if there’s no germs to fight the bad germs, then who wins? Okay, that’s redundant, but seriously, I think we need them so we’re not totally at the mercy of antibiotics, which don’t do what they used to do anyway. We can build up a resistance to antibiotics and certain germs, but don’t we need germs to do that?

    Sorry, I’m off subject.

    As for research, yes I’ll cheat if I can get away with it. I wrote thousands of words about Vietnam and I’ve never been there. I researched,but how do I know my research was accurate? I believe some characteristics and motivations are instinctual and don’t need research because there aren’t any real factual facts on every aspect of being human.

    A lot of mumble jumble, don’t you think. I usually do that when I don’t know what I’m talking about. My sons are generally impressed, though.

    Goodness, I sound very noncommittal today. Not sure why. Too much sun? I baked oatmeal cookies this morning and I’ve already had 3. Too much sugar?

    I’m so glad to be back.


    ps. How’d you make your link live, Carol?

  8. Hi, Joylene. You’re right of course (about needing a few germs in our environment), and it’s not mumble jumble at all. I had just finished the last of our peanut butter cookies before I wrote this post, so that may be where my silliness came from, too. 😉

    In my first (shelved) novel I wrote about an area near West Vancouver that I’d never visited… put in a fictitious little shopping mall with an artist’s supply store, and a small market because my protagonist needed them … only to take a drive there during my revisions, and discover there really IS such a mall within the community (Caulfeild), complete with an artist’s store and grocery market!! I was shocked.

    I understand what you’re saying about settings. I tend to blend real settings with fictitious ones, so sometimes bluffing doesn’t matter. Other times it does and Google Maps can be of only so much help. My current w.i.p. is set in the lower mainland and, while the particular street is fictitious, the neighbourhood isn’t, so I’ve taken a few drives in that direction with my camera.

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