Sunday, July 5, 2009

Facts Are Not Enough

By Lisabet Sarai

"Just the facts, ma'am."

Research is an integral part of writing, even in fiction. When you're an author, you've got to get it right. Some readers take insane glee in pointing out gaffes and discrepancies. Have your ancient Roman characters drinking tea, your Elizabethans using the word “clitoris”, your Dom swinging a cane made of bamboo (I've been pointedly informed that bamboo is too brittle for a cane and that rattan is the preferred material), and you may find yourself ridiculed throughout the blogosphere. Even a more forgiving reader can be distracted from your story by some detail that just doesn't fit. Every author's goal is to build a fictional world in which readers can happily lose themselves. To the extent that this world is inconsistent or unbelievable, the author will fail.

If you write only about characters who share your class, ethnicity and culture, or if you set your stories in a non-specific contemporary locale, you may not need to do much research. However, as we've discussed in previous weeks (“In Someone Else's Skin” and “Setting the Scene”), this can get pretty boring. Thinking about my own work, I find that there are four situations that dictate the need for research.

  • Geographic or location-oriented research: When I'm setting a story in a specific location (as I usually do), I often research landmarks, place names, or spatial relationships. I don't need to give my readers a map, but I may need one myself in order to write convincingly.
  • Cultural research: If my characters are something other than white, western, and well-educated, I need to check on things like vocabulary, slang and tone. I also need to understand the characters' assumptions, the way they look at the world and how that is different from my own perspective.
  • Sexual research: There are many sexual practices that I haven't personally tried (though you might not think that from some of my previous posts!). In erotica, it is especially important to research the details of the fetish or sexual subculture you are describing. I've read many BDSM stories that struck me as ridiculous rather than arousing because the practices described were inaccurate and reflected a lack of research on the part of the author.
  • Historical research: Writing in a period other than the present probably requires the most intensive research activity. Every aspect of life depends on the historical period, from costumes, food, transportation and economics to language and world view.

Some authors adore doing research. I gather that for some authors, research actually distracts them from the writing process. They get pulled deeper and deeper into the worlds they are exploring, searching for the next level of detail, putting off writing as they gather knowledge that they might not ever use.

Personally I view research as something of a necessary evil. I'll spend the time I need to answer my questions, but I am always eager to get back to the story itself. I have observed that too much research carries risks—the author feels compelled to use all the nifty information she has uncovered, and ultimately, this distracts from the story. Normally, I'll let the story itself drive my research activity. Before I begin, I'll spend some time reading about the period, the people or the practices on which I'm focusing, but then I'll stop, only returning to my search when I have a question.

Geographic research is fairly straightforward, given the resources on the Internet. I also have two shelves full of travel guidebooks which I use extensively. I'm fortunate in that I've traveled quite a lot. Frequently I'll set a story in a city or country that I've visited. Even so, I will often need to check on details. “Prey”, for example, is set in Prague, but I wrote it nearly ten years after I visited that wondrous city. I spent quite a lot of time poring over maps and trying to reconcile them with my recollections. One of my current works-in-progress, Necessary Madness, takes place in Worcester, Massachusetts and its environs. I lived in central Massachusetts for more than twenty years, but I still find that I need to jog my memory. Of course, if a tale is set somewhere that I've never visited, like Guatemala (Serpent's Kiss) or Assam, India (Monsoon Fever), I have to rely entirely on external information, supplemented by analogy with places I have been.

Cultural research is particularly tough for me. Not foreign cultures—if I've visited a place, I usually have at least a rudimentary sense of the people and how they communicate. But in capturing the subtleties of other western subcultures, I have problems. The American south, for instance, has a particular flavor of discourse. Likewise the American west. I've tried to write criminals and mafia and stuttered badly. One difficulty is the fact that you can't search directly for the kind of cultural markers that make a character seem genuine. The best way to pick them up is to actually meet an individual from that culture. The second best method is to read other people's work featuring characters from the same subculture.

Sexual research is always fun, and not too much of problem. The 'Net overflows with didactic material on various fetishes as well as content that can serve as exemplars. My story “Body Electric”, in the Yes, Sir anthology, features electric play, which I've never personally experienced. I had no trouble finding information on electric toys and the effects that they produce. Even my BDSM critic (the one who chided me over the bamboo cane) did not find fault with the result!

Historical research, of course, can go on forever. About a third of my second novel Incognito takes place in Victorian Boston. The physical environment was fairly easy; I had lived in Beacon Hill, which actually hasn't changed much since that period. However, I spent considerable time, effort and money researching costumes (Victorian clothing was extremely complex, with lots of special vocabulary), transportation, and the differences between social classes. I also read up on Victorian erotica, which was the subject of my heroine Miranda's dissertation, using Steven Marcus' encyclopedic though annoying tome The Other Victorians.

Even a historical short story requires an inordinate amount of work. “Shortest Night”, set in Shakespeare's London, took me nearly twice as long to write as a normal story, because I was working so hard to be true to the period. After all that effort, my editor still picked up a variety of words that were too modern for Elizabethan times. (I was extremely impressed.)

It's tough to get the facts right. Unfortunately, even if you do, that may not be enough. To accomplish the objective of creating a compelling, believable fictional world, an author needs more than a raft of detail. It's critical to have what I can only call a “feel” for that world—an intuitive sense of how it works and how its denizens think, feel and behave.

It's never possible to answer every research question. Sometimes I have to rely on imagination. But this only works if I can understand the people and places I am trying to portray, at a gut level. How do you acquire this sort of intuition? You won't find it on Google. For me, building a rich, nuanced picture of the world where I'm setting my story requires more personal experience. Reading original sources, including fiction, from a period can help. Visiting a museum or the actual site is a possibility. Ultimately, though, I find the process a bit mysterious.

Sometimes no amount of research will help. Several years ago I toured the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. During the twelfth century, the city of Angkor had more than a million inhabitants. It was the largest settlement in the world. I was fascinated by the civilization that had built such impressive monuments, only to disintegrate back into a village culture, and I had an idea for a time-slip erotic romance set partially during that period.

I set about reading everything I could find about Cambodia and Angkor. I spent lots of money on books. I went to museums. I scoured the Web. Somehow, the intuitive sense of those people eluded me. I just couldn't picture them, understand who they were and how they thought. I could look up all the historical details in the many books I bought, but my imagination remained bone dry. I've shelved the project for the moment, hoping that at some point I'll have some experience that triggers the sort of comprehension and empathy that I need to be able to proceed.

Research the facts. That's the starting point, sure. But developing a sense of your world, to the point where you can trust your guesses—that's far more difficult. Ultimately, it's a kind of magic. Like creating stories in the first place.


  1. Hello there, and thank you for a very interesting post :)

    I was just curious regarding the detail about bamboo being too brittle to use as a cane. This confunded me a bit, since bamboo is, in fact, stronger and more flexible than wood in many ways.

    For this reason the bamboo cane is used widely in martial arts such as Kali Sikaran where the cane, being only around 80 centimeters long, is able to completely pass through a human skull with the only help of momentum provided by a simple elbow movement. The flexibility of the bamboo in this case only enhances the impact, since it diminishes the energy lost in an elastic collision.

    Concerning bending and such, it is only the thickness of the bamboo shell, and to some grade, it's dryness that decides whether it will bear or break, as with wood.

    I'd love to see some source material from this person that chided you for the use of bamboo :)

    Yours truly,


  2. I don't mind the research so much, and have often found it leads to either other stories, or more interesting details in a story I'm working on. I tend to get lost mostly in the research for clothing.

    Geography is a bit more touchy, and when dealing with historical or famous landmarks, locations, etc. I sometimes struggle with whether to use the real location for settings or not - especially if the contemporary setting is say for a paranormal book. An example, I wrote a story that is set in Key West, FL. There's a well known bar in Key West called Sloppy Joe's, but I didn't use that name in the story, favoring a fictional bar with a similar history. But trust me, even getting to the point of deciding to use a fictional bar, I spent hours learning about Key West. Gotta love Google "street view" too!

  3. I too want to thank you for a great, great post.

    I'm definitely one of those writers you mention who gets too sucked into the research. I WISH I found it a necessary evil.

    Another thing I found fascinating was your trouble with setting a story in Ancient Cambodia. I have exactly the same problem you do with it. The few surviving contemporaneous source materials are Chinese and so culturally biased in themselves. There is just no way to get a sense of what the culture was like.

  4. The first Lisabet Sarai story I ever read was called Butterfly (from Erotic Travel Tales 2). The description of Bangkok was incredibly detailed and vivid - a testament to the author's high level of research.

  5. Lisabet,

    A wonderful post, lady, thank you. I find research interesting and could easily be drawn into some of it way too easily. I've leaned towards centering most of my books and stories fairly close to home, not necessarily using real places because I really don't want to deal with people griping about this or that street name. I do find the fawn and flora here a great plus for some stories.

    If I do take things further afield, I do my research, and grumble when I know I'm delving too deep. The story's the thing though, isn't it?


  6. Once upon a time, I ordered pasta with marinara sauce while in Austria. I'm sure it was edible, but I couldn't work my brain around expectations versus that flavor in my mouth. And while up until that point I'd only tasted American marinara, which probably has its own wrongness, I couldn't help but feel the chef should have known better than to call an Austrian sauce by an Italian name.

    Most readers won't have the background to know with certainty if your story is right in every detail, but they'll sense something is off if you don't deliver on their expectations. Research should give you the right flavor, but you're right about it overwhelming the story - and absorbing the writer.

  7. Hello, all,

    I've been away for a few days, but thanks for your great comments. Including the one about bamboo...!

    "Butterfly" did not require any research. It was based on personal experiences in Bangkok in the '80s and '90s. And Bangkok has such a distinctive flavor - there is nowhere else on earth even remotely like it.

    RG - I think it's because all the stone is so impersonal. The monuments are state creations. They don't feel human. The one exception is Bantay Sreay (and of course you already know what I did with that setting!)

    Kathleen, your comment gets at the heart of what I was trying to convey. All the details in the world won't help if the place and time don't feel right.


  8. Lisabet,

    What you wrote about, having done the research and yet still not having internalized that sense of who, what, where, when and why holds true for all sorts of genre. It's the difference between reciting facts and telling a story. I've had stories stall for the same reason. I can see the place on a map, look at pictures, do all the Google searches and such, but if I can't internalize it all, it's nothing but boring facts.

    I'm fascinated by Angor Wat though, so hopefully you get that story going someday ;)


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