Research and accurate writing

I read an interesting article in a magazine this morning about the importance of research and reflecting this effort in one’s writing. With non-fiction this is a given; without thorough research on the topic, the author’s credibility is at stake. You need to get it right or your readers will dismiss you instantly.

Research in relation to fiction is another matter, went the writer of the article. It was written from the perspective of an editor who has to deal daily with authors who often display sloppy research skills – or none at all. ‘It’s only fiction,’ they whine, ‘so it doesn’t matter if it’s not entirely accurate.’


One small inaccurate historical fact, one misplaced geographical detail, or an innocent cultural gaff can have readers slamming your book down in disgust or throwing it across the room. You need to get it right or your readers will rebel. You may lose a dedicated reader for life, and if you have contact details on your web site, you will get abusive emails.

The simplest of errors that can creep into a story are often innocent and not noticed by most readers. I came across a classic example recently in a novel written by a friend and a writer highly respected in her field. The story was set in the 1870s and the characters sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to the protagonist. Instantly this jarred in my mind. This song is a relatively recent composition, I thought. My research has revealed that it was first used in the early 1900s and was first published in 1912 (if my memory is correct). It became part of the popular culture decades later, much later than in the 1870s. [Note to my readers: please correct me if I’m wrong!] I know the author had done meticulous research for her novel, a fictional retelling of an historical event in Australia. This one slipped innocently under her radar – and that of her editor.

It can take just as much time to research a novel as it does to gather material for a non-fiction book, especially if you are setting your story in an unfamiliar location, time in history or culture. I found that research was crucial when writing my children’s novel set in Nepal. I’d been a visitor – a tourist – for about four weeks. Hardly enough time to absorb all the nuances needed to successfully write the story.

The opposite is also true. If you get it right you’ll have readers wanting more. That’s what we all crave, of course.

Good writing.


One Response to “Research and accurate writing”

  1. Ken Rolph says:

    In Dog Tales I misplaced a whole lake. I’ve just had this pointed out to me by a geography teacher. We need to publish books with a note on the front:

    Warning: not to be read by anyone with actual knowledge of the contents!

    But she still bought 2 more copies to give to friends, so it can’t have weighed too heavily.