Research: the write stuff – a tale of big words?

Note: This Post Originally featured on the WickedWriters Blog…


OK, a free blog topic! So, is it really true? I really don’t have to write more about horror, Halloween, and other ghouly stuff? (At least not for another year!)

But I have gotten so used to this place… writing about stuff I haven’t really a clue about! What am I to do now? Go back to mundane thrillers and financial crime? And, me being so late with this post… What will you readers be looking for now?

If in doubt… write from experience! Write what you know and can feel!

Yes, all well and good, I say… but there is an existential paradox here (big words #1 & #2) Oooo! I love it when I get philosophical! (Big word #3) Again I digress…

The Existential Paradox of Fiction

A paradox...

Write what you know and can feel? But I write fiction. Fiction is not real. I cannot KNOW it; neither can I actually FEEL it! I cannot therefore write fiction based on what I know and feel. I cannot write what I cannot know. QED!

Existentially, if in doubt… what the h*** do I do now? How can I effectively write fiction if writing is best based on knowledge and experience and I have neither?

Research, I hear you say. (Well I might, if I could get the hang of this auto-suggestion malarkey!)

Research is a search for knowledge – perhaps the knowledge I need to write the fiction I am planning. But research implies a systematic investigation to establish facts and it usually also implies a scientific (not existential) method. What good is research to me? I am trying to write about stuff that does not exist – it is FICTION!

I repeat: F I C T I O N ! ! !

What about applied research, though? Surely that is different?

Oh, yes! Discovery and interpretation – all designed to advance human knowledge. But, knowledge as the basis of the unreal – of fiction? The paradox again. There are no facts concerning what is not real.

Now here’s one! Artistic research… Debatable! Art as an alternative in the search for knowledge and truth? Dubious, surely… but we are still digressing from the paradox! There are no facts concerning what is not real.

The existential paradox suggests: “why should we bother to develop our individual knowledge-bases as an aid to writing fiction – developing untrue narratives for the purpose of entertainment, not the advancement of human knowledge – why?

Why bother with research? We can just make stuff up, surely!

A tricky place...

Case in point! A short time ago, I posted the opening chapter of my work in progress – the sequel to River of Judgement – in which I set the villain of the peace in a tricky situation in Libya. What do I know of Libya, or what an encounter with a criminal master-mind would be like? I know nothing. It’s fiction. I just made it up!

I created a social situation in a country that I have never visited, in a world (of crime) that I have never witnessed, about people that are wholly fictitious! If I was to gather facts – research, if you like – to develop the knowledge to write that scene on the basis of what I knew to be the case, I could end up in a pretty dicey situation myself. That is, assuming that such a reality actually existed somewhere, and didn’t mind being exposed in a real narrative. But then, that would not be fiction… 😉

I have missed a point here (deliberately so, in the hope that I could find enough to write about, lol)

The paradox of the unreal real is simply solved.

The answer lies in counterfactual analysis (big word #4). Assume the fiction is real, as we write about it. We research for facts that would support our fictional reality (if it was real). We research to support the narrative, not to provide it.

We want our readers to believe in the worlds we create. But the great thing is, these worlds we create don’t actually have to BE real. The world of our fictional narrative merely has to give the impression of a reality, long enough to engage our readers.

Fictional worlds, the places and characters that exist within them and the lives and actions we portray as fiction writers, form what can be described as socio-cultural contexts of systems of meaning, action, and/or beliefs.

These contexts of systems are basic to the world they describe. They are “plausibility structures”, and are a dialectic (given up counting big words now). Our fictional world should comprise a plausible structure, one that supports the fictional narrative. It does not replace it. And the fictional narrative, drawing on the plausible structure, in turn, suggests that structure is wholly real! The narrative acts to make the fictional world self-evident.

So research becomes a necessity if we do not have the knowledge to create and write about plausible structures.

And where does that leave the opening of my sequel set in Libya? Is my reality plausible? (Not factual.) Well, lucky me, this weekend I am about to set foot on Libyan soil for the first time in my life. I shall take full advantage of gaining experiences that will help me develop the structure of my fictional world – but I shall not worry a jot about the narrative! :)

  8 comments for “Research: the write stuff – a tale of big words?

  1. November 9, 2010 at 11:32 pm

    David, Sorry I took so long to comment. While I was reading your post, the late Michael Crichton’s name leapt into my head. He had so much science gobblygook in his chapters that by the end you completely bought into the idea that we could clone dinosaurs and they could have us for dinner. Great points. Well done, Sir.

    • November 10, 2010 at 3:00 pm

      Hey, James, no need for any apologies – I’ve not been too hot on getting to comment myself, lately!

      I must admit, Micheal Crichton is yet another of those writers that I feel I have neglected in my own reading experience… for a writer, I am one of the worst readers I know! :)

  2. November 8, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    Hi George, I hope with the time it has taken me to work the Libyan internet that your migrane has not taken hold! I would hate to think you were lying there incapable of imagining an erotic romance! :)

    (P.S. From What I have read, you cannot possibly class your self as a simpleton! I am affraid that just won’t wash with me !!)

  3. george allwynn
    November 7, 2010 at 10:58 am

    David – great post — and I really loved reading it… but alas, I am a simpleton! I think I will take two pills to ward off a migraine and lie down to ponder more of this delightfully complex post. PS — big words are a turn on for many humans — keep it up and you may inspire an erotic romance! (*grin)

  4. November 5, 2010 at 10:51 pm

    An interesting blog. I remember my early stories were strictly what I thought I knew, not based on research. Of course, back then, research would have been me at the library for hours, poring through book after book.

    Anyway, what I’ve found is that you need some believability. People are so in tune with the Internet that they can actually spot problems (if they try hard enough and they do try).

    Fortunately, we don’t have to actually travel to Libya to write about it, but enjoy yourself anyway, David.

    • November 8, 2010 at 5:27 pm

      Hi Greg, (from a sunny Tripoli!)… I agree with you, believability (or my word, plausibility) is the key to an engaging plot! And yes, you do not have to travel out here to write about Libya, but it is fun!!!! :)

  5. November 5, 2010 at 11:44 am

    Good post on a topic I have written about often as well.

    As a writer of Science Fiction and Fantasy I was often faced with the inability–or so it seemed–to “write what I know”.

    I let my inner editor, and his twin brother, inner critic, beat me up about this for years. It didn’t keep me from writing, mind you, but the nagging did wear on the nerves.

    One day I realized that despite knowing nothing about meeting aliens in space, or the actual practice of wizardry, there was something I did know. People. Humanity. Culture. Not to mention a smattering of behavioral psychology, a bit of linguistics, and… well, you get the picture.

    We all have a background in life. Every day we survive is another day of serious research… if we look at it that way, and make use of what we learn.

    We cannot really write about aliens, from their point of vew, and be truly alien. Our readers would scratch their heads and walk away. For an alien encounter, or for an encounter with a dragon, what works is our human reaction, our standards for dealing with the unknown.

    If everything is knowable (except perhaps an alien mind from the inside), we can write about how we react and how it makes us feel.

    I don’t know where the old saw of “write what you know” came from, but I can guess it was from a failed writer turned teacher. From someone who tried to write about Libya (grin) and thought perhaps people there were totally different from the people in his own home town.

    • November 8, 2010 at 5:24 pm

      Hi Richard, thanks for stopping by.

      I had tried to respond to your comment when I arrived here in Libya on Saturday but, despite the 5* hotel with free wireless, the connectivity between the hotel and the www sufers from something like steam-driven speeds! My response seemed to disapear before my eyes!

      Still, here I try again! I suppose we do get used to the facilities we have at home a little too quickly! Lest we forget…!

      I used to read SF when I was younger – a lot of EE Doc Smith – and I have the plot of a mundane SF novel in the planning stages. Whatever happens, I think some of my recent experiences in Libya could well find their way into the future!!

      D :)

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