Verysillymitude: Making Stuff Up Accurately


This term’s university module is all about the importance of research in fictional writing, and how to do it. I have a bit of an advantage here in that market research is 75% of my day job, plus my undergrad degree was in Ancient History and therefore pretty much all research-based. A lot of this stuff is so ingrained that I don’t necessarily realise what isn’t obvious, so if anyone has any specific questions about the art of research please leave them in the comments and I’ll focus on them in future posts.

There’s just a couple of points that I want to touch on for now, though.

I’m writing SF&F – do I need to do any research?

This conversation came up with my course colleagues, all of whom are writing historical or modern-era fiction. One person said:

Made up stories which rest on nothing more than the writer’s imagination, have no concrete root from where research can be drawn.


Cities are usually laid out in a certain way. Does your fantasy capital make sense?

I respectfully disagree. With a story set in this world, your readers can build a mental picture with relatively few clues, drawing on their own knowledge. With a fantasy world, they have no prior knowledge or images so you have to make that picture even more compelling. That requires a well-researched sense of the physics and biology, good and believable depiction of architecture, culture and politics. These are all things which the writer should research and base on existing cultures, etc, in order to make them believable, relatable and compelling.

Terry Pratchett wrote a wonderful essay about how a reader once sent him a letter saying that the geography of the Discworld was all wrong because meteorology dictated that the reputedly wettest place on the Disc was actually in a rain shadow.

Plus there’s always psychology. Why are your characters behaving the way they do? What in their past history would impact their behaviour? I have a wonderful book called Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, which lists mild and extreme symptoms of everything from PTSD to Middle Child Syndrome. If you want to make complicated characters who don’t react logically to everything because they’re people, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

What is truth?

The one thing a writer must never do, under any circumstances, however, is to distort the truth for the sake of a good story. ~ Ann Hoffman, Research for Writers

Yeah… no. We are, first and foremost, storytellers. If the research inspires a new twist in the story, awesome sauce. If it completely stymies it, then sail straight on by with a rude gesture. You can always come back to that point later. Besides ‘truth’ is wildly subjective. As Gerald Seymour said, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

Facts, now, facts are different. Changing a fact is changing something that can be proven otherwise. If you start messing with, say, the laws of physics you’d better have a really good world-building reason or it’ll throw your readers right out of their immersion.


In the realm of SF&F, ‘facts’ can take on a slightly weird definition. For example, the architecture of the USS Enterprise – a completely fictional ship – is so very well documented that mucking about with that will result in outrage. Be aware of your genre and your audience.

There’s also the issue of cultural sensitivity. I don’t just mean cultural appropriation – of course we borrow from other cultures in order to create new worlds. (Just do your research and use them, y’know, respectfully.) But there are certain points in various cultures that have too much associated with them – the Holocaust being a prime example – and you really do not want to mess with those.

For my current project, the figure of Jack the Ripper is a vaguely important one. That means research into all the stories and legends around him, including the ‘facts of the case’. But over the years and theories, many of those facts have become so sensationalised that I feel no qualms in altering them to suit my own ends. This is my version, my story, and the story comes first.

You never know when stuff will come in handy

A couple of years ago, when work was particularly stressful, I indulged myself in a massage. Whilst I was lying face-down on the table, trying to make polite conversation with the lovely lady punching my shoulders, it occurred to me that she must know all about muscles. So I asked her what the physical effects would be on someone who’d been strapped to a chair in the same position for 300 years (the fate of my current pro/antagonist). She explained all about the impact of sciatica, and thus a plot challenge was born.


In closing, here’s a handy infographic on how Harvard Referencing should be done. Bibliographies are pretty rare in SF&F, although very common in historical fiction, but knowing how to compile them is still handy.

Like I said, if anyone has specific questions about methods of research, or what to research, or what questions to ask, etc etc etc, please say so in the comments and I’ll give it some air time. Otherwise, I’ll move on next week to something else. 🙂

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