An editor considers lack of research

Generic_alumni-booksMy colleague, Robert Runté, and I read and edit a lot of manuscripts in the course of a year. We often see the same mistakes cropping up.

I thought it might be of interest to share my observations through a series of articles.

At the top of my list of writing faux pas is lack of research.

In any written work, the richness of the story is partly due to the depth of research, and therefore believability, of the environment the writer creates. Call it world-building, environmental detail, authorial authority—whatever you will, that depth of detail silences the reader’s desire to be elsewhere and acts as a lure.

What this means for the writer is a willingness to consume a broad spectrum of information, to verify that information through primary source documentation, even if that research never makes it into the final iteration of the work.

It means taking copious notes. It means writing backstory. It means slowing down, taking your time, adopting an almost Sherlockian attention to minutia.

So, if your heroine is a bowyer, make sure she’s using a credible weight and style of bow for the culture and environment in which you’ve placed her. Make sure her gear is appropriate to the time period or culture, as should be her garments. If she’s hunting, whether for sport, food or self-defence, don’t have her quarry dropping immediately into death. Why? Well, go and research that and you’ll know why. Don’t have her taking a shot at quarry 500 metres distant and expect that shot to come anywhere close to the mark. Why? Well, go and research that and you’ll know why.

If your hero is an historical character, dress him appropriately. Take the time to research the time period’s garments right from what he’d wear next to his skin, to what finery, or lack thereof, there might be for the public to consider. So, after his dip in that icy stream, what does he put on first? His shirt? Is it an 18th century shirt of coarse linen he wraps between his legs before hauling on his fall-front breeches? When he pulls on his stockings are they kept in place with leather or tablet-woven garters, or simply held in place with bits of cord? Are there buckles on his shoes, or laces, because that detail directly indicates material wealth and therefore status. Is his waistcoat buttoned with horn, leather or woven buttons? And is the waistcoat culturally appropriate? Why? Well, go and research that and you’ll know why.

When your protagonist is venturing forth into the world, what sort of conveyance is appropriate, and what would it be like to ride in or on that conveyance. I remember reading one much-touted literary work, in which an august character from ancient Greek history is writing while riding in a wagon. It was such an astonishingly badly researched moment, from an author who should have known better, I came near to an apoplectic fit. And if you need to ask why, well, go and research that and you’ll know why.

Or perhaps we’re dealing with near or far future environments. If so, make sure you are at least conversant with developing technology, and where that technology might lead, how it may or will impact our lives.

As D.G. Valdron of The Mermaid’s Tale, so eloquently put it in a recent interview: “How do we live? How do you get through the day without being killed? How do you get through the day and find something to eat? How do you raise a child that survives? More globally—how do we ensure a next generation?”

As a writer you need to become a sponge, sucking up information and knowledge with gleeful abandon. Read. Observe. Adventure into the territory of knowledge and imagination. Dare to dream. Why? Because that’s part of your job description. Fail to do so and you relegate your work to the beige realms of mediocrity. Succeed in doing so and your work elevates to the extraordinary realm of literary narcotic. And that’s a good thing.