Monday, January 23, 2017

The Importance of Facts, Even In Fiction

I'm a discerning reader, possibly to a fault. A factual slip can throw me out of a story and anything set in the country (or God forbid, on a farm) damn well better have been researched or I'm going to skewer it. In private, of course, but it will be skewered.

I researched for 18 months before writing A MADNESS SO DISCREET. I like to tell people I know so much about lobotomies I could perform one (I don't add that it's not a terribly delicate surgery). When it came to MADNESS, I dove in. Lobotomies, medical treatments for the mentally ill, the history of criminal profiling, the setting per 1890's culture, even speech patterns. I wanted to be thorough.

Originally MADNESS was supposed to have a connection to the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and America's first known serial killer, H.H. Holmes. That was scrapped later on for various reasons, but I had already done so much in-depth work framing the book for the 1890's that I didn't want to deal with a very big roadblock.

Lobotomies as we know them weren't in use until the early 1900's.


A part of my plot hinged on lobotomies and I'd read over a thousand pages concerning them, so I wasn't going to toss everything in the bin. Instead, I needed a feasible reason for a doctor in 1890 to have enough medical evidence to support performing something like a lobotomy... and I found that in the story of Phineas Gage.

I read another thousand pages in relation to Phineas before executing the scene in MADNESS where Thornhollow describes to Grace the function of the frontal lobe and explains the procedure he's about to perform on her.

Thousands of pages of research went into roughly three pages of that book.

In the same vein, I researched water for six months before writing NOT A DROP TO DRINK. I read about the history of water, about the projected water shortage, and even a book concerning - yes, really - water law. I can tell you things about water law that you really, really don't care about.

But in all of my thorough research concerning water I overlooked something vital.

Gasoline expires.

Did you know that? I didn't.

It was something I didn't even think to look into. Most post-apocalyptic movies show plenty of roving bandits on motorcycles and people driving around in cars. Totally wouldn't happen. This was pointed out to me at a conference the year that IN A HANDFUL OF DUST (a book with, yes, people driving cars) released.

I'm not above telling you that it really, really bothers me that any scene in DRINK or DUST that involves gasoline is bogus.

That's how important facts are to me, even as a fiction writer. So important, that one of my favorite quotes from a historical figure found it's way into IN A HANDFUL OF DUST. I'm going to leave it here at the bottom of this post as well, and you will be seeing it pop in my social media feeds as we move forward this year.


J.A. Ward said...

This is fascinating to see the "behind the scenes" research going into your novels. I feel like research can sometimes turn into a black hole that is hard to escape. How do you know when "enough is enough?" When you go to write the scene and don't question anything you are writing? And do you usually loosely plot a novel before researching to know what pieces you're looking for or do you have the "spark" of an idea and then research to fill in the plot?

Oddsocks Writer said...

Thanks for sharing. It's fun to hear what an author goes through to get a novel written.

It's funny the quote is from John Adams considering the 'facts' coming from the White House these days ;)

Mindy McGinnis said...

JA - There's definitely such a thing as over researching. Typically what happens is that I put as much background as I can into research before typing Chapter One. Then while executing certain scenes I will end up double-checking myself just to be sure I did it "right." But I'll end up on brief side-research trips as well. Once I couldn't finish a line of dialogue until I figured out what cops were called in Boston in the 1890's.

Generally speaking I will loosely know what's going to happen for the first 1/3 of the book or so and will research any specific scenes I know I don't have the data for in my mind already. Then (always) as I'm doing the research, other things I come across during the groundwork laying for research will spark other elements within the book.

For example, when I was working on MADNESS I didn't know that Nell would be a syphilitic until I was reading about how syphilis was treated with bathing the patient in liquid mercury. And boom - new character.

Oddsocks - Oh yes, there's a certain subtext at work within this entire post, and that's not by accident.

Oddsocks Writer said...

Bathing in liquid mercury?!I had no idea. Talk about curing syphilis with death.. Poor Nell.

Mindy McGinnis said...

Oddsocks - Yes, sadly the mercury was the only treatment that slowed the spread of the skin lesions. However it was not a cure, it could only keep the spreading at bay for a short time. Sufferers either died slowly from mercury poisoning, or died from complications of syphilis.

J.A. Ward said...

Thanks for the insight! I am definitely aware of how research can spark new ideas for your story, so that makes sense that it actually helps to sculpt the story.

Erica Eliza said...

Yes! I love when authors are candid about their research. I've spent the last eighteen months or so researching a type of surgery so I can write a single scene in a book one day. I know it won't be the most interesting part of the book, but the way I describe that procedure is going to make or break the book's credibility.