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Thursday, January 15, 2009

How much research do you need?

My friend over at The Innocent Flower started a debate yesterday about research. I'm all for research. If you're writing a novel set during a real time period on Earth (past or present) you need to have the facts down. If your reader's don't know, they learn something. If your readers know the time period and you flub, you're dead.

But the entire discussion led me to the question of how much research you need for science fiction writing. It's futuristic, it's usually set somewhere other than Earth, and most people are content to work with a minimal amount of science background to build a story.

Sometimes this works.

Sci-fi books that get bogged down in technical details and read like the instruction manual for a power saw don't sell well. But the geeks out there (that'd be me) like to have interesting factoids in their reading. It's nice to walk away from a book and feel like you've learned something.

The logic follows that a sci-fi writer only needs the bare minimum of research.


To create a realistic fantasy or sci-fi world you need to world-build. That means creating everything from scratch, from the biological layout of aliens to the grammatical structure of the main spoken language. You have to invent idioms, religions, mores, and taboos. You have to know how the ship's engine works, and then decide how much you need to show the reader to make your fantasy reality.

And this is my only excuse for why I spent two hours last night detailing the rules to a game that features in one brief scene in chapter 3 of my current WIP. I have to understand how to play the game to explain the scene. I can't just write, "K and J played chess." Because they didn't, they played a game adapted to their races mentalities, their social order, and to the superstitions that control their culture.

Bottom line... if you don't want to do research stick to writing what you know, or not writing at all.


  1. "If I always wrote from experience, I'd be dead." --Tami Hoag

    I cna agree, to an extent, with what you've said here. Yes, there is a significant amount of research that needs to go into anything. But if you can't use your imagination as much as you use the research (or more) in a worldbuild, where can you?

    In a complete build, you have to know everything. The way the social caste works, the politics, the history, the stigmas and prejudices, the way your creatures look and act and relate to each other and the world around them...and visa versa. Even if you never put it into the story (and 99% of it will never make it into the story) you still need it in order to effectively build the setting and characters. Perhaps you can call that research, but in order to create that, you only need basic knowledge of certian things. Even then, if you want to create something that behaves differently--even in the world of physics--you can. You just need to sort out HOW it is different and WHY and what makes that possible.

    Especially for science-fiction and fantasy, you don't need that much research--you just need an amazing imagination and a good handle on the world around you.

    That's my opinion anyway.


  2. Ah, but the difference is, that's not reseach. That's Making Stuff Up O:) It's much shinier and more fun and less boring.... :D

  3. Yes, to some extent, what Rana said. Only I do think that the more you know about how stuff works in reality, the better basis you have for making your own stuff up, and the more 'real' your made-up stuff will feel.

    Hence my obsession with studying everything... o.O

  4. I dunno. My sci-fi... I have folders full of research. I cruise around looking for interesting studies that I can adapt to work in fiction. Slave bacteria, quantum entanglement, solar panels... it's all there.

    You can't create a solid fictional world without first doing some research on the real world. You can't create a caste system unless you have some clue how it works.

    And all the world-building you do, I think, becomes research. Maybe not the kind you cite at the end of the book, but pages and pages worth of notes. Research your own imagination almost.

    Especially if you have a series, you have to keep notes to refer back too in book 3 or 4.

  5. Ah, great post, Lei!

    I didn't mean to start a debate, per se, just a discussion. Glad to see you branched this out.

    I think making stuff up can go hand in hand with research. You still have to know facts to make things up. And you still have to make it sound credible and realistic.

    "Research" is spending time KNOWING what you're writing, whether or not that is making things up. It's all time well-spent, and very necessary. :)