Divers* Joys of Research

Kage Baker loved research. It was a professional necessity, but she also just liked it. It was her favourite game, the ultimate jigsaw puzzle. She’d spend days on topics with no point beyond personal interest, or a chance glimpse of an overgrown road. She would spend whole weekends pursuing links through every connection she could  find online. It often yielded story ideas but she would have done it anyway – it was her private version of a hunt, alone out there in cyberspace in pursuit of a previously undiscovered fact.

I spent a lot of time on maintaining virus software.

Professionally, of course, Kage championed research and always lectured sternly on its necessity for any writer – not just as a writer in general, but because she wrote hidden-history and fantasy and science fiction. Those genres may not seem to technically require research; but the holes that show in the finished story if research is neglected are actually much more obvious than in non-genre fiction.

Science fiction fans are a lot more likely to realize you botched the description of fusion in your dramatic battle for control of the reactor, than general fiction fans are to complain about the 1982 hem length description in your Bryn Mawyr college romance tale.

Except for the inevitable history geeks, who will find every single error in any period more than 25 years old. Write a story in any time period more than a generation past, and somewhere there is someone who is: 1) an expert; 2) a pedant; and 3) in a really bad mood. This is one of the reasons it is so important to do your research – so your life may be long and peaceful in the land the Lord has given you, and untroubled by the freaks who write letters to complain that you painted the curb red on the wrong side of the street.

All writers get them, of course. Science fiction writers may get more than most writers. And there is a small but very vocal portion of science fiction readers (I am not sure they’re fans exactly) that write in to complain about …  antigravity. FTL drives. The specific appearance of specific aliens. Telepathy, transparent aluminum and continental drift on Mars. The usual complaint is that the writer has gotten the details wrong, which makes for some very scary letters when one realizes the letter writer claims precise and personal knowledge of these matters. But there is also a portion that complains to the writer that these topics are not real.

After trying polite demurrers for a short while (dictated to me – Kage wouldn’t read these letters personally nor directly respond to them, either) Kage took to just asking, “Do you know why this genre is called Science FICTION?” And she got answers back to the effect that they knew it was science fiction but they didn’t really like that silly fiction stuff, so could she please right something that was more scientific and less fictional?

They often had suggestions, too. Oddly insistent ones. Like, that time travel stuff was a waste of effort when there was a whole city of Lizard Men under Los Angeles, and so why didn’t Kage write about that? (They supplied references and maps …) Why didn’t she mention the real Martians? (She did.) She should have written about real Indians, not a made up tribe like the Chumash. (Um – they’re real.) They had proof about who had burned the headless dinosaur out by Mystery Cave! (Long story and sounds like a Scooby Doo episode …  real, though.)

As you can see, the other problem that arises with the letters from reader/researchers is the temptation to argue with them. Sometimes their assertions and complaints are so peculiar that one could happily spend hours coming up with witty responses. Sometimes they are actually interesting, which eats up even more time that should be spent writing. And sometimes their comments are so weird that any reply at all is a mistake, and you end up reporting them to the Post Office and the local FBI stringer when they begin detailing their service in CIA Black Ops and how it has enabled them to locate you even though you did not put your return address on the letter you did not send them but that they intercepted anyway …

Sometimes it’s just not worth talking to real people.

Research, though, never fails. So I am off to peruse a little gem I found a few days ago: an extract from Pigot’s 1830 Directory of Devonshire, with its fascinating lists of “Nobility, Gentry and Clergy”. Just think, the Dowager Countess of Guildford lived there!

Tomorrow: more research

*Archaic usage implying abundance and diversity

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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6 Responses to Divers* Joys of Research

  1. Tom says:

    Indeed she loved her research, your sister. She asked for help tracking down the origins of ‘Fifteen Men On A Dead Man’s Chest’; and she was just as happy to learn it was an 1890s sophomore pastiche as she might have been had it been tracked to the Panama Campaign of Captain Morgan. It seemed to be the hunt, not the result, that mattered . . . that, and actually knowing . . .

    • Kate says:

      I remember how delighted she was with that hunt, Tom – she read out all your finds to me, excited as could be. She was so pleased to share it with you, too. A real treasure hunt.

  2. It’s true, it’s so true. The thrill of the hunt is half the fun. And knowing, just knowing what the real answer is is the rest. The time I spent trying to figure out the exact layout of the Crystal Palace in both 1851 & 1854 (they weren’t the same!) might not seem to be worth it, considering how little of that information actually got used, but it made a lot more confident when writing a chase through that space. Actually finding the layout of the 1854 building, oh my god! and once I knew, of course, I could do anything with it that I wanted. But I knew.

    • Kate says:

      Sometimes, Maggie, it doesn’t matter if you demonstrate all the cool stuff you know about a place or a topic: you just plain old write a better scene because you have a more accurate picture in your own head. So everybody wins. But the best part, I agree, is just knowing this cool weird stuff.

  3. Mark says:

    “somewhere there is someone who is: 1) an expert; 2) a pedant; and 3) in a really bad mood.”

    Hey! I resemble that remark. Although I have long since come to the conclusion that the “real” mark of expertise is not giving it away to those who haven’t asked and don’t care. When authors ask in my field, I try to cast some bread on the water w/ hopes it will be returned. But unsolicited editorial inputs are rarely appreciated.

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