Six impossible things

Research and Imagination

Years ago, I heard a story about — I think it was Lester Del Rey, but it may have been somebody else of that era of SF writers. He wanted to set a story in Africa, which he had never visited. So he researched it — watched documentaries, read National Geographic, read biographies and histories and memoirs of the place. And wrote the story.

Two years after it was published, a woman came up to him at a convention and said, “Sir, I grew up in Africa and it was so nice to finally see a story written by somebody who’d been there and who knows what it’s really like!” She proceeded to go on about the smells and the sunsets and the sound of the wind. And he could only smile, because he still hadn’t ever been to Africa.

I’ve thought about this story every so often for years. The obvious moral is that one doesn’t have to have been somewhere in order to write about it, as long as one does sufficiently careful research. Too often, that last part gets overlooked – I’ve seen more than one story set somewhere that the author all-too-obviously hadn’t bothered to find out about…or in a place that the author knew only from TV or movies. Is it really so hard to call up a map and look up where JFK International Airport is in relation to Brooklyn or Queens?

There are, certainly, some people for whom “research” necessarily means actually, physically walking around a particular place. For a writer who is strongly kinesthetic, it may be the only way they can get a sufficient feel for the setting to write about it. For most writers, though, reading enough about a place is more than enough to provide them with all the material they need to evoke it (and to be certain that they won’t make errors that will instantly betray their lack of familiarity to anyone who does know the particular place well).

But for me that incident about the story set in Africa isn’t just about researching places. In the past thirty years, I’ve seen a growing tendency to criticize people for writing about anything they haven’t personally experienced, from extremely personal things like having a disability or giving birth to more general experiences of social class or culture. Informed imagination is apparently not enough; the only legitimate credential for some people is actually having been there, done that, and if you haven’t, they think you shouldn’t write about it.

The minute one examines this theory at all logically, it falls apart. Science fiction writers cannot, at present, be required to have talked to aliens or been to Mars; fantasy writers cannot have personally ridden a dragon or unicorn or cast a spell. Writers of historical fiction cannot see a gladiatorial contest at the Coliseum in Rome or walk through the Forum in all its glory – the most they can manage is a visit to the present-day ruins, supplemented by, you guessed it, reading accounts written at the time and a liberal dose of imagination.

We don’t expect the writers of murder mysteries, thrillers, and horror novels to be murderers, spies, or serial killers. We don’t even expect them to be policemen or to have experience as secret agents, soldiers, or profilers. We do expect them to be storytellers, and to give us a reasonably plausible and believable portrait of whatever characters they put in their novels.

At least, that’s what some of us expect, and I think it’s a reasonable expectation. The trouble is that there are too many people around who talk about the power of the imagination, but who don’t really believe in it in their heart of hearts.

The corollary to “if you haven’t done it or been it, you can’t write about it well” is obviously “if you wrote about it well, you must have done it.” People are grudgingly willing to admit that one doesn’t have to have fallen into a duck pond or had a life insurance salesman freak out in the living room ten minutes before a dinner party in order to write a funny story about one, but the minute you write about something like abuse, harassment, a bad marriage, an alcoholic parent, or a character on drugs, an enormous wad of people will assume you couldn’t have done it out of your imagination; it has to have come out of your personal experience. (Murder mystery writers remain exempt, though writers of erotica are not. Evidently, nobody ever imagines or would ever write about any sexual practice, positive or negative, unless they’ve experienced it personally. It makes one wonder why writers of erotica are not more in demand socially.)

This is why you see disclaimers in the Afterwards of books that say things like “Although the characters in this book have a really rough time, I was never abused/a drug addict/an alcoholic in real life. I made it up.” And people still don’t believe it.

Making things up is our job. Imagining what it’s like to be the operator of a meth lab in rural Texas, or the star of a Bollywood movie, or a child being smuggled out of North Korea or South America is all part of the job, as much as figuring out how to evoke what it’s like to watch a sunset over the Sahara desert or haul a sledge across the Antarctic wilderness. Or what it’s like to be an elf, or the first person on Mars, or the last one on Earth.

Research gives the imagination material to work on. Personal experience is one kind of research, and as I said, it’s vital for some writers; it’s just not the only kind of research, nor is it vital for every sort of writer. Reading diaries and memoirs, watching documentaries, and studying textbooks are also research, and are just as valuable as experience to most writers (and more valuable to some who are really low-kinesthetic).

Material, however, is only half the equation. Imagination is what turns material into stories…and sometimes, it starts with the most unlikely material one could possibly think of. This is what those people who demand that writers have “been there, done that” don’t get. Possibly because they’re short on imagination themselves.

6 Comments
  1. Some people take the “write what you know” statement to extremes, that’s for sure!

  2. “There are, certainly, some people for whom “research” necessarily means actually, physically walking around a particular place.”

    I’ll think I’ll set my next book in Tahiti*. The travel expenses will then be tax deductible.

    I’ve always felt that many beginning writers choose fantasy because they think that excuses them from having to do any research. This is revealed in the extent of what they demonstrate to not know about horses, blacksmithing, pre-running-water hygiene, or what it’s like to walk forty miles in a day. A well-informed writer can use the imagination to craft visceral vicarious experiences, but imagination by itself isn’t enough. “I didn’t have to do any research because I made it all up” is just a lazy excuse.

    (*It’s a magical place.)

    • No kidding! I love Diana Wynne Jones’ “Tough Guide to Fantasyland” for just this reason. (See especially: Ecology. And Horses. And Stew.)

  3. I write fantasy, and I’ve researched a lot of things. Cross country skiing, the history of canning, the metallurgy of bronze, the making of gongs, water clocks, the heliopause, and more. Sometimes I need to know the most unexpected things!

    I am one of those kinesthetic writers, but I find that I can often layer my real experiences (running, lifting weights, swimming, feeling shocked, walking through the ruins of the ancient Roman forum, etc.) onto happenings in my stories that are similar. We kinesthetic sorts can be creative in accessing the “knowledge” we need. 😉

  4. I’ve never done US Civil War re-enactments, nor been in a plane crash, but I faked them successfully enough that I got the same response Del Rey did. I’ve also never been in 3rd century BCE Syracuse, or Alexandria, or Corinth, still less the Shrine at Eleusis, but I faked them well enough that a fan came up and said, “Where did you get all that information about the Eleusinian rites?” I said, “Well, there’s this book by George Mylonas, who spent twenty years researching…” and she said, “Yeah, I’ve read that, but where did you get the REST of it?” I said, “I made it up.” She was terribly disappointed.

    Of course, in those days I had access to a good University library. 🙂

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