Facts, Fiction, & Fandom: Harnessing Geek Power to Research Your Books
There's a saying about writing historical fiction that I'm rather fond of - "you can make a lot of stuff up, but Lincoln has to be tall."
In this day and age, information is easier to get a hold of than ever before, and that can be a tremendous benefit to us novelists. However, that also means it's easier to catch us red-handed if we don't do our research. And in the age of the internet, you can be sure our sin will be found out. Yeah, our job as writers is to be a storyteller above all else, and I certainly believe in dramatic license. However, that's not an excuse for us to not put any effort into researching whatever it is we're writing about.
Nothing can replace the traditional approach of going to a library or bookstore and doing some in-depth reading. My debut novel, The Brotherhood of the Black Flag, is set during the Golden Age of Piracy, a fortunately rather popular era of history. There's no shortage of books on the true history of piracy out there, and I made substantial use of them. When they didn't provide certain details I needed, I turned to other sources. The British Royal Naval Museum was gracious enough to respond to various questions that helped me piece together my protagonist's military background, and a very nice lady from the Bristol Records Office clued me in on the city's population in 1721.
However, knowing where to start said research might be an imposing prospect. We could find ourselves dealing with a subject that a ton of books have been written about, and we don't know which ones will have the specific information we're looking for. Or maybe our subject is obscure, and dependable resources are scarce. We might not even know what we don't know. What to do?
This is the point where fandom becomes our friend.
At their best, online communities bring people with a common interest together to share their love, appreciation, and passion for something. And for a writer looking to do research, that kind of passion and dedication can be very useful. For Black Flag, I turned not only to online forums dedicated to all things pirate-related but pirate re-enactment societies and forums on historical swordsmanship. The people on these forums that I spoke to clearly knew what they were talking about, and were sticklers for accuracy. (Which was good, because I wanted to be as accurate as possible.) If they didn't know a particular detail off the tops of their heads, they directed me to someone who did. My questions were super-nitpicky, from the purchasing power of gold doubloons to making sure the fencing schools in the book were using the right terminology and equipment, and I'm most appreciative that these questions were not only put up with, but answered in impressive detail. Some members provided all sorts of information that went above and beyond the specifics I was was asking for, which proved to be helpful in all sorts of ways. (One such stray detail ended up inspiring the protagonist's entire character arc.)
Naturally, I'm not suggesting this as a substitute or replacement for other kinds of research. It's merely another tool to have at your disposal. Besides, it makes for great free marketing for your book. By visiting online forums and posting your inquiries, you're already raising awareness of and interest in your book among a likely audience.
All this being said, I do have some cautionary caveats about this approach.
First of all, just because you've done extensive research for your novel doesn't mean everything needs to make it into the narrative itself. We need to remember that our story is about our characters and their arcs, not the era they live in. We need to provide proper context, streamline as much as we can, and make use of "show, don't tell" as much as possible. If we really want to show off how much work we've done, we can always provide some historical notes and/or a glossary of terms at the end of our books. (I went the glossary route for Black Flag.) Those of us with websites can even make this information a web-exclusive feature. Either way, if we really want to share the full bounty of your research harvest with your readers, there are ways we can do it without killing the pacing of our story.
Also, trust but verify when possible. There's a lot of misinformation out there, and plenty of trolls who might get a kick out giving someone deliberately bad information as a means of embarrassing them.
Last, but certainly not least, please be gracious when asking for help, and appreciative when you get it. None of these people are obligated to take time out of their day to help you out. If they do so, it's a courtesy on their part, so please be courteous in turn. (Besides, do you really want to drive away potential customers?)
Good luck to all my fellow writers, and happy research hunting!