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!

.

Are we poisoning our chances for publication?

.

Common snowberry, or Symphoricarpos albus, is a deciduous shrub in the honeysuckle family. It grows wild on shady hillsides and woodland areas but its attractive clusters of white berries have also made it a popular ornamental shrub in many gardens.

It grows in wild abundance on our family’s Okanagan property and provides winter food for quail and pheasant. In other areas it’s also browsed by deer, bighorn sheep and bear.

On a recent visit I admired the shrub and came home to research its name. Despite its innocuous appearance, I found one source (Wikipedia) that said snowberries are considered poisonous to humans. “The berries contain the isoquinoline alkaloid chelidonine, as well as other alkaloids. Ingesting the berries causes mild symptoms of vomiting, dizziness, and slight sedation in children.”

We have a lot of wild berries in BC, many of which are edible, but some are known to be poisonous while others are of doubtful edibility or are just plain unpalatable. Around our property each spring we have bushes that bear small red berries that I think are huckleberries. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s what they are… but not sure enough to eat them. I’m going to take a sample to our local nursery next spring and get a knowledgeable opinion.

In this case I think I’m smart to admit I don’t know what I don’t know. When in doubt, be cautious. Go do some research. That’s not a bad philosophy in writing, too. Barging headlong into unfamiliar situations without first doing adequate research can often cause irreparable damage.

A couple years ago agent Rachelle Gardner posted a “Friday Rant” about people who fall into her inbox looking for an agent. They pitch work that she doesn’t rep; they’ve clearly made no effort to read guidelines or learn about the querying process; they “aren’t taking the time to approach publishing seriously.” In their ignorance they alienate agents and effectively kill any chance of having their work considered.

That’s not very smart if their goal is publication.

~

When tackling something new in life or writing, how do you determine the proper approach? Do you prefer to jump in first and ask questions later? And here’s another question: Do you think it’s unfair to be penalized for ignorance?

~


Reading instead of, or in addition to, writing


My post last Friday began with, I don’t have time to write… or do I? Silly question. If we’re novelists, we make time, because our passion for storytelling drives us to get the words out.

But what about reading? If we’re writers, making time to write can be challenging enough. Who has time to read? At a workshop a writing colleague said she crammed her writing into isolated moments of busy days and evenings, and there were absolutely no other free moments left. If she chose to read, she wouldn’t be able to write.

My thought is, if you aren’t reading, and reading extensively, you probably aren’t much of a writer anyway. Sorry, I know that’s blunt, but that’s how I feel, and I’m not alone.

On Jessica Morrell’s website she has a column entitled, Reading and the Writing Life in which she says, The only way to become a writer (and I’m paraphrasing Stephen King and many others here) is to read a lot and write a lot. Reading is part of your job; in fact, it’s a huge part of your job. I’m writing on this topic today because I keep meeting writers who are writing fiction or other genres, but don’t read it. In fact, I meet writers who don’t read much at all. They claim they don’t have time. I don’t get it. You’ve got to make the time. Reading like a writer is living like a writer.”

I admit to the luxury of having more free time than many people. I read every moment I can, yet the pile waiting on my TBR shelf is constantly growing instead of diminishing. There’s never enough time to read everything I’d like to, but I keep trying.

I’m the last person who ought to offer advice to another writer struggling with the time dilemma (although I’ve occasionally tried), so I’m asking for your input:

  • On average, how much do you usually read?
  • What genre do you read? And is it the genre you write?
  • When do you do most of your reading?
  • How do you ‘make time’ for reading?

~

 I hope you’ll join me here on Friday for an interview with author Jody Hedlund
as we celebrate the publication of her second novel and give away a copy of it.

~

Research and Writing, an Inevitable Combination

Dead leaves crunched under foot and weeds crowded the path that was the only access to the abandoned cemetery.  Detailed directions from the curator of the small rural museum included the warning that it would be easy to miss the trailhead. But we didn’t, and eventually found what until that moment I hadn’t known existed — the grave marker of my great grandfather.

Only those of you who appreciate the complexity of genealogy will understand the thrill of that discovery. It’s amazing what research can uncover.

I’m impressed at how much research many writers undertake in order to ensure authenticity in their novels. I recently read a series of blog posts by Carla Gade who, in preparation for the writing of a colonial novella, attended a historical society’s presentation on “Dressing a Colonial Lady.”  There is far more to a colonial lady’s wardrobe than I ever imagined!

There can be hours spent online and in libraries gathering details for historical novels. And there is the travelling — sometimes extensive trips such as the ones to Britain taken by authors Diana Gabaldon and Jack Whyte.

Not every writer goes to that length, of course, and some “write what they know” and don’t do research at all.

What about you? If it’s required, how do you handle the research in preparation for your writing?

~

Research and Writing – Part 2, coming on Friday.

Google Doodles and Search Options

There are many search engines to help us find things on the Internet. In fact, many is an understatement. I found an alphabetical list and only got to the K’s before counting 100! I’m sure you’ve heard of the most popular ones such as Google, Yahoo, Bing, AltaVista, Cuil, Excite, and Lycos. One that I’m not familiar with is GigaBlast. I learned it “was developed by an ex-programmer from Infoseek [and] supports nested boolean search logic using parenthesis and infix notation. A unique search engine, it indexes over 10 billion web pages.” It also claims to be “the leading clean-energy search engine”, whatever that infers.

Years ago I set Google as my homepage because I had a slow Internet connection and wanted an efficient search engine without graphic frills that loaded quickly. Today the frills don’t matter, but I still like Google. Apart from its searching ability I enjoy its Google Doodles.

“Google Doodles are known as the decorative changes that are made to the Google logo to celebrate holidays, anniversaries, and the lives of famous artists and scientists.” It’s a little thing, but I like knowing, for instance, that today is the birthday of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the great Russian composer, and I’m fascinated by the doodle chosen to illustrate the occasion.

The history of Google Doodles is found here, plus there is an archive of all the logo doodles here.

About now I can hear you wondering, “So, does this have anythings at all to do with writing?” But, of course!

Next to the actual writing, research is the writer’s constant occupation. Before the Internet made its way into our homes searching for information was a ponderous process. If you wanted to use a particular place as a story setting you first physically took yourself there to explore and record the necessary details. If you needed historically correct data you haunted the library. Police procedures? Legalities? Medical complications? You sought out and interviewed knowledgeable individuals. Now everything is available at the click of a computer key. There’s no excuse for inaccuracies in our writing.

(There’s also the topic of making yourself visible to others via search engines, but that’s better left for a future post.)

How much and what kind of research do you do for your writing? Which is your favourite search engine?