You may also have seen that Irish author John Boyne (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas; The Thief of Time) has good-naturedly admitted to a bit of lazy research in his latest novel A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom (Doubleday). In seeking an historical method for dyeing clothes red, he inadvertently borrowed a recipe that included ‘the tail of red lizalfos and ‘Hylian mushrooms’ from, apparently, the 2017 Nintendo game Zelda Breath of the Wild. Boyne admitted the error resulted from a lazy ‘Google’, saying in response: ‘I’ll leave it as it is. I actually think it’s quite funny and you’re totally right. I don’t remember but I must have just Googled it… Hey, sometimes you just gotta throw your hands up and say “Yup! My bad.”’
Worryingly, there are numerous ways in which one’s research can fall short.
When it comes to historical books and passages, unconscious anachronisms present easy traps to fall into. Shakespeare was known carelessly to toss anachronistic references into his plays – mentions of striking clocks and doublets (in Julius Caesar); to the premature existence of the University of Halle-Wittenberg (in Hamlet); to billiards (Antony and Cleopatra); and ‘dollars’ (MacBeth) are well-documented examples. Presumably, the prolific playwright sacrificed chronological accuracy for entertainment.
In terms of the need to get details and evidence right, popular US author Dan Brown, for one, has often been criticised for his books being poorly researched, particularly having claimed, daringly, in the preface to best-seller The da Vinci Code (2003) that ‘All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.’ Now there’s an invitation to lovers of accuracy (note I didn’t say ‘pedants’ – oops)… The Louvre Pyramid features 673 panes of glass not 666! Leonardo’s canvas for The Virgin of the Rocks stands at 6.5 feet tall, not five foot! The five linked rings of the modern Olympic Games are in no way a hidden homage to the goddess Aphrodite… And so on. (Brown must be crying all the way to the bank at this point).
More recently, New Zealander Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2017) is another best-selling book criticised for inaccuracy, including by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, despite the author’s claims that “Ninety-five per cent of it is as it happened; researched and confirmed.”
Opinion appears divided on whether writers have a responsibility to be as truthful and accurate as far as possible in the representation of historical facts—or whether those ‘facts’ (which may not always be concrete in the first place) may be altered a little in order to get a story across to the reader. Morris, for instance, countered criticism of her book by saying, in The New York Times: “The book does not claim to be an academic historical piece of non-fiction, I’ll leave that to the academics and historians.”
However, lazy assumptions and stereotyping can be another downfall, and for these there is less excuse. For instance, the Iraqi-Welsh journalist and writer Ruqaya Izzidien (The Watermelon Boys) last year launched the website Muslim Impossible to review fictional Muslim and Arab characters in literature as well as film and TV. She will note where characters are stereotyped and, particularly where female, are ‘exoticized’. In one review, for example, Izzidien writes: ‘…the Arabs in The Moroccan Girl [by Charles Cummings] are a foreigner’s idea of clichéd Arabs, and excruciatingly so.”
So how much research should you do for your writing – or should you expect as a reader?
When writing in a contemporary setting, we can use, a variety of sources – images, maps, documents, books and articles, and have the option of speaking to people and visiting places first hand. Writing historical fiction, however, we cannot do the same degree of field research. I myself have relied on a range of sources, academic articles, style magazines of the period, old travel books (as noted in a previous post: Take you there), places selling antiques and vintage items. And, yes, in addition to the library, I do often use our friend Dr Google—as a starting point to the search. Suggestions now pop up in my inbox – do I want to read an article on Ottoman Maps of the Empire’s Arab Provinces, 1850s to the First World War? On the Aesthetics of the Ninetenth-century Deathbed Scene or Tableau Vivant or Narrative Suspension in Masoch’s Venus im Pelz? Quite obviously, I am researching the late 19th century, across a wide range of areas—but I cannot read everything exhaustively.
I mean, I enjoy the research, but where to stop? For all my intentions to be thorough, I am sure I end up making mistakes. Nothing as thundering as a landmark yet to be built nor invention still to be developed (the Eiffel Tower standing in Paris of the 1880s, for instance, or the ballpoint pen), but little doubt there will be errors in details of dress, societal norms and manners, research notwithstanding.
Within her guidance on why and how to undertake research, author and creative writing tutor Joanna Penn also includes advice on when to stop. “Remember, research can become a form of procrastination and the more you research, the more information you will find to include,” she warns. So true. One risk lies in finding a juicy fact and shoe-horning it into the text quite superfluously. “Therefore,” Penn says, once you have enough information to continue, “then maybe you should stop and do some writing about it.” She also suggests giving yourself a time limit noting “You can always do additional research as you write, but the important thing is that the book is underway.” I quote her extensively here because the advice appears so sound and sensible.
If you write, what’s your approach to research for your work?
As a reader, do you notice historical and other inaccuracies – if so, do they bother you?
Alison Flood, ‘John Boyne accidentally includes Zelda video game monsters in novel’ in The Guardian, 03 August 2020.
Joanna Penn, ‘How To Research Your Novel … And When To Stop’ on The Creative Penn, 18 January 2017.
Feature image from Pixabay
Magnifying glass Agence Olloweb on Unsplash.