There’s no review this week because I’ve been bogged down with end of semester work, but I still wanted to post. This one is more on the writing process, something I’m very much interested in, so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on a pretty important (to me) topic: the importance of RESEARCH. Yes, I capitalized, because nothing irks me more than when people spew out nonsense because they didn’t take the time to make sure it wasn’t, in fact, nonsense. It drives me utterly insane that whenever I’m on Facebook, friends and family are sharing videos, photos, news or blog articles, etc. That’s nothing new. But what I’ve been noticing more and more often is how much of what gets shared is complete and utter nonsense.
Here’s the thing. Some of the the things people post are legitimately interesting or useful. For example, one friend posted this Buzzfeed link of photos of the major traffic debacle in Atlanta a few months ago, explaining in brief how a seemingly minor storm (to us in the Northeast) became as dire as it did. It prompted me to dig a little more and find out the specifics of the event, and I came across this article explaining what we Northeasterners apparently need to understand about the whole event and why it got so bad. But what really annoys are the shared articles and posts about “news” that is so clearly nonsense, yet gets posted as if it’s God’s truth. For example, I noticed a friend who had commented on an article that stated Sarah Palin’s beliefs that Malaysia Flight 370 flew directly into heaven. Now, she’s done and said some completely wackado things before, but this just seemed to push it. And, sure enough, it came from the lovely Daily Currant, which, like The Onion, specializes in satirical “news.”
One friend posted this video (link includes video, rebuttal, and back story) from a guy down in Florida who came across the body of a dead mermaid on the beach. I automatically called nonsense because, well, come on, mermaid! As it turns out, she was actually created by an artist named Juan Cabana. If you take a peek around his site, you can see he’s actually done some pretty interesting pieces involving “sea monsters.”
Then there was this one about Pope Francis and some truly revolutionary things he was saying about Christianity and the Catholic faith. In a nutshell, the article claimed that the Pope Francis said that the story of Adam and Eve is a literary device, a fable, Hell is “merely a metaphor for the isolated soul,” and several other pretty amazing things that would be fantastic, if they were true. I’ll admit, this one almost had me. Pope Francis has made the news before with his forward-thinking (for the Catholic church) sound-bites, but this one seemed almost too good to be true. So to satisfy my curiosity, I looked it up. And sure enough, it was a hoax. It originally appeared on Diversity Chronicle, which, if anyone who had read this one first had paid much attention to the surrounding site, they would’ve noticed the bizarre titles of other articles, such as the one about Santa Monica seceding from the U.S. to form a communist republic or their “War on Women” category. Or their disclaimer.
These hoaxes that people often take at face value are abundant across all social media sites, and across the Internet as a whole. It’s a typical sign of the times. Information is so readily available to us now, and if it looks legit, it must be. It reminds me of that State Farm commercial– “They can’t put anything on the Internet that isn’t true.” Right?
One of the most important aspects of any form of writing, be it a scholarly article, work of fiction, or even a children’s book, is proper research. I say “one of the most important things” because there are a plethora of factors that go into good writing, such as grammar, character development, language, tone, etc. It should go without saying why the importance of research is paramount when writing for a scholarly journal. But what about a work of fiction?
In her 2010 blog post “On the importance of research to fiction writing,” Lacy Marschalk outlines some great reasons why research is so important in fiction. But here’s my take on it.
Imagine an historical fiction novel written without any proper research being done on the time period. A great story could be ruined if, say, Teddy Roosevelt was cruising around the White House in a motorized wheelchair (the first wasn’t manufactured until 1916, seven years after his presidency ended in 1909). Or consider how one might feel if they read a story involving Greek mythology and Zeus was running around Olympus wielding Poseidon’s trident or flitting around the world in Hermes’ winged sandals. It’s hard to look past things like that, and the story along with the author could lose their credibility almost immediately.
I read Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian a few years ago, and it was clear, even before reading this interview, that she did her homework on good old Vlad the Impaler and the settings she chose to use and worked very hard to create a really great frame story. This allowed her to be very comfortable with the various time periods and subject matter she was covering. Good information makes a piece of fiction much more enjoyable because it gives an air of possibility – Could this really happen?
On the other hand, a book could become a runaway success even if it has severe push-back in regards to its historical accuracy. For example, according to Ida E. Jones of the Association of Black Women Historians and Melissa Harris-Perry of MSNBC, much of Katherine Stockett’s depiction of African American women in her best-seller The Help was fairly inaccurate, although highly stereotypical. Nonetheless, it didn’t stop the novel from being a huge success. What it does mean, however, is that something can be considered great even if the writer(s) have the facts slightly skewed. It also means that, even if the book is largely a success, it can still end up isolating groups of people due to its inaccuracies. Another problem that stems from this is we very often gain unrealistic ideas about people, places, things, and events because of works of fiction. Adapting things slightly to make an interesting story is one thing, but presenting things that are simply incorrect is a problem.
With the Internet connecting every point on the globe and the easy access we have to seemingly endless amounts of information, it’s frustrating that one has to dig through so much nonsense to get to the good stuff. But because people can be very quick to share when they come across something helpful or note-worthy (like a friend did when she came across this cautionary tale involving contact lenses and a campfire), bad information gets perpetuated for years, often changing forms slightly (the girl at the campfire had previously been a welder at work), but continuing to survive nonetheless.
I hope to eventually teach writing either at the high school or college level. One of the things I tell the students I work with now who are getting ready to head off to college is the importance of research and being able to back up your assertions with factual evidence. I try to prepare them as best I can, but it’s tough at times. Unfortunately, nowadays, many kids I come across at all levels see copying and pasting Wikipedia articles as presenting credible evidence. They often don’t see the importance of doing your own research and presenting your own ideas – both from a creative standpoint and a moral one. But that’s another post for another day.