Research can drive a writer nuts if you let it… because it is just about impossible to get something (anything) 100% right. Facts, as the man once said, are stubborn things…
Years ago, while researching TALES OF THE EASTERN INDIANS (my book of Native-American stories), I’d come across a recent scholarly article on the Vikings’ first voyages to the “New World” and their meetings with the North American tribes. We’re talking hot-off-the-presses world-recognized-expert stuff. I soon contacted another Viking expert for some accompanying info and during our communication, mentioned this article in passing entirely to prove to him how well I’d done my homework. His response: “Oh, THAT article! Yeah, Dr. So-N-So doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s off by 200 years.” Zoinks!
At the recent Thrillerfest, an author (Anne Rice? Michael Palmer?) recounted how she/he’d constructed a fictional city council based on a real city council known personally/thoroughly and has since received vehement and meticulous letters from a reader detailing how a city council would “NEVER” do this or that. Lots of city councils out there. Michael Connelly, who’d spent years as a reporter in courtrooms, is stopped often by folk with: “I can’t believe how well you nailed X. That’s exactly how we do it.” and “Can’t believe how much you screwed up X. That would never happen.”
There’s always another expert, reader, article, or discovery lying in wait with different info than what you found. I could spend the rest of my life trying to figure out when Vikings first landed in North America, and at the end of that life would still have people arguing about and/or altering my findings.
In PROJECT CAIN and CAIN’S BLOOD, I got to research serial killers, cloning, military science, post-traumatic stress disorder, the genetics of violence, and crime. Interesting topics. Did I get everything right? Doubtful. Difficult to do when even something as basic as Ted Bundy’s eye color becomes arguable. “Blue” says one report, “Brown” claims another witness. “Green,” Bundy replies himself in the court transcript. “They change color depending on the light,” says a reporter following the case. They change color??!! <yanks hair> The FBI said blue, so I went with that. The FBI was a good-enough source for me. Might someone who knew Bundy have a better/different fact? Maybe. But I had two books to write and couldn’t spend the next four years of my life deciding what Bundy’s eye color was.
Every writer must come up with his/her own rules on this stuff. Mine are this:
- Research as comprehensively and precisely as you can.
- Find consensus between several sources.
- Then tell/use the best truth you can find.
Simple, right? Does it guarantee I get everything right. Nope. Even “facts” and “statistics” can change source to source. But, unless I want to spend forty years on each book and still get something wrong, it’s a pretty good start.
Maybe YOUR rules will be different. James Frey (author of A Million Little Pieces) infamously got in hot water for the truth bending he’d used for his best-selling book… but his next book, fictional Bright Shiny Morning, he admitted proudly, “If I saw something , a statistic, I wanted to use but it wasn’t quite right for what I wanted, I just changed it.” (Mark Twain suggests, “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”) It IS Fiction, after all. And I found Frey’s stance quite freeing as a writer (still do), but it didn’t really fit me. So, all in, PROJECT CAIN and CAIN’S BLOOD are some 700 pages, and only once – in a total nod to this Frey interview — do I intentionally bend the “truth” of history to augment the fiction. The rest, to the best of my two-years research, is “accurate.” Debatable? Of course. Few things aren’t. My father, a historian, recently gathered with other American-diplomacy scholars at Harvard to discuss the conditions leading to Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and the Cuban Missile Crisis. There was not, 60 years later and several lifetimes spent studying the topics, consensus on that panel. How’s the adage go? Ask two <insert profession here> a question, and you’ll get three answers.
Best bet is to (a) establish your own ground rules early and (b) accept that you’ll still never be perfect regardless of your rules and (c) appreciate that the world is like your favorite in-law/sibling who has completely different “facts” from the ones you dug up… and just think of it as Thanksgiving dinner all year long. Now, pass the gravy, please…