This post, by Bryan Thomas Schmidt, originally appeared on his site on 11/30/11.
Research, hate it or love it, is something every speculative fiction writer must deal with at one time or another. Most deal with it often. Research is an easy thing to neglect for many reasons. Above all, it’s usually less fun than writing and creating and it’s time consuming. Still, research is necessary. Here are ten mistakes writers make with research. Consider the costs of making them yourself.
1) Skipping the research. I don’t need no stinking research. Mistake number one. You may be able to fudge some things, especially in science fiction stories set in worlds far distant from our own, for example, but in your historical fantasy, your contemporary urban fantasy or your medieval epic fantasy, you’d better know the facts. If you don’t, readers will and they’ll be unhappy you didn’t care enough to make sure you did. In any world building or story crafting where facts and details readers could know or research are required, research it yourself. Know what you’re talking about. That’s usually impossible without research.
2) Relying on novels by other genre writers. How do you know Terry Goodkind or Patrick Rothfuss got it right? Where did they get their facts? People make up inaccurate facts all the time and write them into their novels. (I am not saying Goodkind and Rothfuss did. I have no such examples. Just using them as examples.) There’s nothing worse for fantasy fans than reading another stereotypical novel set in a stereotypical fantasy world that gets it wrong. Don’t trust anyone but yourself to do the research and do it well, unless you can afford to pay a research assistant, in which case, be sure and hire a trustworthy one.
3) Using only one source. How do you verify facts? Check them against multiple sources. Don’t assume the source you are using has it all right. Check their facts against other sources. The internet is a great resource as are libraries. You can find multiple resources on almost any topic you’d want to research. So make use of that and be sure you’ve got it right.
4) Researching only when and what they have to. To a degree, you only need research for a science in your science fiction, so to speak. But that doesn’t mean you should stop there. How do you know your world makes sense geographically? How do you know the dietary patterns and plants you place in various locations are correct for the climate or environment? Who cares? Informed readers, that’s who, and all it takes is one to blow the whistle and cause other readers to doubt you. Once they doubt you, they have trouble trusting the stories you tell and if they can’t suspend disbelief, your science fiction and fantasy can’t succeed very well. So research details whenever you can. Even if you’re not sure they’re important. This doesn’t mean you need to research every word, of course, but play detective and ask yourself what you can research to make your story better and more skeptic-proof and true to life and then get busy.