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Doing Research Wrong

When I teach my expository writing students to do research, I usually tell them something along the lines of this:

Do not enter a research project with preconceived notions of what you will know when you are done. The point of doing research is to learn. It is your duty to read widely and get as full a picture of what you are studying in order to formulate an opinion about that topic. Your thesis (your argued point) comes after the research is done, not before.

This, I think, is good advice for scholarly research of all stripes. Don’t go in with preconceived ideas. Keep an open mind. Read deeply and widely.

Then, when I write novels, I don’t do anything of the kind.

I hasten to note that I’m not writing historical fiction, here – I’m writing speculative fiction. Scifi, fantasy, time travel – stuff like that. Everything I’m writing is, on some level, verifiably false.  I’m making shit up all the time. So, the extent that I’m interested at all in actual facts – whether historical or scientific – is somewhat limited. That limit is the very low bar that is suspended disbelief.

Basically, if I can fudge some actual aspect of history without knocking the audience out of the story by violating their suspension of disbelief, then I can totally get away with it. Because, sure, they didn’t have potatoes in medieval Europe. But they also didn’t have magic or elves or gnomes. And this also isn’t medieval Europe. So what’s it matter, anyway? They’ve got potatoes in their stew – deal with it.

Now, of course, some audiences are going to be more sensitive towards this stuff than others and, furthermore, certain kinds of stories are going to require you to meet a higher standard of suspension of disbelief than others. For instance, I’m currently writing a time travel novel and, since it involves my character traveling back to actual places and times in actual Earth’s history, I have had to do a variety of research to make those places seem authentic. I’ve done research on 18th century American currency, military honors of the Roman Empire, card games played in Port Royal Jamaica in 1670, and who the Lakers were playing on December 8th, 1976 (the Pacers – the Lakers lost).

Ummm…no. Not unless absolutely essential.

This research, though, takes a different form than what I would call actual academic research. I don’t need my answers to be correct, exactly – I just need them to be plausible. Furthermore, when I’m doing research like this, it’s to establish a very specific effect in a very specific scene that often happens only once in the whole book. I do some research online for a little while and, if I can’t find an answer that looks suitable, I change the scene so that I no longer need that specific answer anymore. I’m not going to sit down and read a whole book on the urban development of South Boston in the 1950s just so two paragraphs in the novel are 100% accurate, nor am I about to subscribe to a special research service or trek to some distant library just to know what color Ben Franklin preferred to wear when out about town. It just isn’t that important, ultimately.

So, in other words, I do research for books like this in the exact wrong way – the way I tell my students not to. I go in with a preconceived goal in mind (“I need a cool card game for my protagonist to play against pirates”), I do the barest minimum of responsible research (YAAAAY Wikipedia!), and I glean just enough information to make it look like I know what I’m talking about without, you know, actually knowing what I’m talking about.

I am bringing this up mostly because, in the last few weeks I’ve asked some people some relatively minor historical questions and received, well, rather extensive details that, while appreciated, aren’t really necessary. This has been from friends of mine who are academics and librarians and historians for whom I have the greatest respect, and therefore I kinda feel bad telling them “well…actually…I really don’t care what the answer is anymore. I’ve changed my mind.” Because I’m not really an academic or a librarian or a historian. I’m a showman. All writers are, ultimately. And while we might enjoy doing research about this or that, the research is not the end we seek. We’re telling a story. And story always, always comes first.

 

 

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Anyone for Recreational Essay Writing?

I just finished my syllabus for my Technology in Literature elective this coming semester. Students will have to write two short research papers and, just for fun, I thought I’d post the assignment here and see what folks think of it. Heck, if you like, go ahead and write the papers (don’t you dare send it to me to grade, though–I’ve got enough of that already). Anyway, here we go:

The overall focus of this course is the portrayal of science and technology in literature and how those portrayals illuminate the concerns and hopes of humans living in a certain era. It tells us a lot about how they thought, what they believed, and also can tell us some things about how we have changed, if at all, from those times. In class we will be discussing certain individual works from certain time periods and analyzing them closely, but we won’t be able to fully explore everything. Your task, in two short research papers, is to expand upon our class discussions and deepen your understanding of one or several of the works we are studying, bringing in outside sources and other contemporary works to develop a unique and compelling thesis regarding the cultural and, perhaps, even scientific significance of your chosen work.

 Accordingly, your precise topic is left to your discretion. I will provide suggestions below, but you needn’t be bound by them—if you can come up with a different topic that interests you more, please explore that. In general, however, you are writing an in-depth literary analysis of one or more works from either the first half (for paper 1) or the second half (for paper 2) of the twentieth century. All papers should incorporate at least 6 sources (including the primary sources), be 6-8 pages in length (approximately 1700-2400 words), feature double-spaced Times New Roman 12-point font, have numbered pages, stapled, with a works cited page in MLA format. A rough draft for each paper is allowable, but is strictly optional. If you wish to receive your rough draft back in time to make revisions for your final draft, be certain to submit it a week or more prior to the due date. Papers may be handed in at any time during the semester up until the due date. Late work is not accepted.

 Topic Suggestions

Paper 1 (pre-1960)

  • How did the idea of British world supremacy influence HG Wells’ Time Machine?
  • Is The Time Machine  racist? If so, why and how? How is it related to Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden”?
  • How does Asimov’s opinion of the Soviet Union affect the themes inherent in Foundation?
  • Does the Galactic Empire in Foundation symbolize Ancient Rome? If so, why does Asimov choose Rome as the analog? If not, what does it symbolize instead and why?
  • Is Heinlein aware of the fascist undertones to his society in Starship Troopers? What is his attitude towards fascism as depicted in the book? How does it differ, if at all, from the kind of fascism demonstrated by the Nazis in 1940s-era Germany?

 Paper 2 (post-1960)

  • Gibson’s depiction of cyberspace in Neuromancer represents a kind of ‘wild frontier’, in a sense (Case is a ‘cowboy’, those who operate in the matrix are apart from society, etc.). What is the meaning of this metaphor? Where does Gibson think the ‘matrix’ (what we now know as the Internet) will lead us?
  • Explain and explore the role of religion and spirituality in Neuromancer. What does it mean? Why does Gibson include it?
  • In Snow Crash, why does Stephenson choose to use the Mafia as protagonists and how does this differ from other late-20th century depictions of the mob and why?
  • What is the symbolic significance of Hiro and Raven’s shared heritage in Snow Crash? What, if anything, is Stephenson trying to say about the future of America?
  • In Banks’ Culture, he shows us a ‘perfect’ symbiosis between man and machine. How does Banks choose to portray this symbiosis? Why?
  • Explore the significance of gender roles in The Player of Games and how does this parallel the changing understanding of those roles in late 20th century Western culture.

Well, enjoy!