Authors have homework too! (or at least should)

With each new author and title I read I come across a most marked difference between the books I revere, detest, like, abhor or am indifferent to.  Basically, I can tell when an author has done the homework necessary for their work and when they haven’t.  This also includes having people actually be critical of the work in that oh, so frightfully discerning way.

I don’t know why some authors don’t do their research thoroughly, if they by chance just didn’t think they needed to or if they were just being lazy, but it shows.  In most cases it’s painfully obvious when this happens.  A bit of advice here, dear authors:  The more controversial the topic (politics, religion) the more research needs to be done.

I am not saying this merely to pontificate about these things but rather to encourage more informed works to be placed upon the shelves.  Partly I say this because I’m selfish.  I really hate reading a book that sounds interesting in premise, find the author has brought up something controversial, uses it like it’s nothing more than a buzz-word, define that buzz-word wrong, then make it do nothing.

With character driven stories this is less of an issue but it is still an issue.  Historical fiction you need to have your facts right: dates, dress, courtship behaviors, technology, etc.  So if you call a woman in the 1800s a “housewife” and she’s using a microwave (and it isn’t a work of science fiction) you better bet your ass I’m putting the book down and, I’m willing to bet, others would too.

Take this book I reviewed in which the author decided to bandy about the term Marxism with seemingly little understanding of it that, aside from my vitriolic reactions to that philosophy, left me wondering why the hell it had been put in there to begin with.  It’s bad enough when an author puts something in a story they either don’t understand or can’t communicate it worth a damn proving they do but to have it matter NOTHING to the story…  Well, it pushes me off the cliff while exclaiming, “Wow, this is abysmal writing and I shall never read another book by Author X again.  Ever.”  [For those who don’t know me personally- I stick to such protestations especially when the book I had read was revered by so many.]  Now if, for some strange/masochistic reason, I endeavor to finish a book constructed like this it is that much harder to convince me you have something of merit to say.  That check for suspension of disbelief you had written?  It bounced.

That whole issue could easily have been handled with either not mentioning politics at all OR by making it matter and show me you did the work to understand it yourself.  I’m not talking you, as a person, BELIEVING it but that you, as an author, have thought about it, questioned it and understood it.  It takes either carelessness, ignorance or arrogance to commit such a transgression as this and, for people like me, you better believe none of those things endears an author to me.  Certainly not in this context.   Think the highest of your reader, aim to enrapture them with the story such that, even with opposing political views, you get them hooked on your premise, ideas and characters.

If you’re doing something like mentioning politics within the construct of a piece of fiction for the sake of controversy you still need to be thoughtful about the ideologies and philosophy you’re talking about.  Basically- show me you care about accuracy in your works.  It’s one thing to be controversial, it’s quite another to be considered an ass.  And when the odds of being perceived as an ass/hack is greatly reduced just by doing your homework- what is there to lose?

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14 responses to “Authors have homework too! (or at least should)

  • Anna C. Bowling

    I am going to hug you now. That is all.

  • Anna C. Bowling

    Agreed. I recently read a historical by an author I have considered (and still do) in my top tier, until skidding to a halt when a name given name appeared a century prior to its recorded use and in a country far from where said name would have even been a word. I had to skim scenes containing the character with that name. Did I miss something? Probably. Did I save myself the constant thought of “ahem, that wasn’t a name then, and they wouldn’t even have known it was a word?” Yes. Worth the tradeoff to me.

    • kimberlyloomis

      Oh my goodness! That seriously stinks. I too have the same problem with such things. It’s like my eyes go on automatic eye-roll maneuvers!

  • jessicabookworm

    I totally agree, an ill researched work will not be making it into my treasured pile and yes like you I will very unlikely ever try another of their books. Two of my favourite reads last year were not just great stories but great research pieces. They were The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – Kate Summerscale and Child 44 – Tom Rob Smith. Amazing and are a warning to other authors it can be done!

    • kimberlyloomis

      Oooh, more for my TBR pile! Thanks, Jessica. Did you review them on your site? So many authors can do it so very well but when they don’t… boy, do they screw the pooch! Well, in my opinion anyway. 🙂

  • Corra McFeydon

    My goodness – yes! I wouldn’t think you need to read four textbooks on Marxism, but at least understand what it is and be prepared to defend your argument. If for no other reason than all the letters you’ll be getting from disgruntled readers when you get it wrong! 😀

    My pet peeve is trivialization of issues in the past – making characters appear to be caricatures of real people in the 1800s. They’re carved for the story but are not true to the time being depicted in the novel. Real struggles are overlooked in place of concocted problems. For example, a woman in the 1930s who can’t believe she didn’t get the top prize for her pumpkin – while the Depression, boll weevils, FDR, and dance-offs rage around her.

    (I think boll weevils might have been the twenties…)

    I’m not saying such issues should take over the plot, but they’d have been a part of the characters life and ought to exist in the background at least.

    Great post, Kimberly.

    ~ Corra

    from the desk of a writer

    • kimberlyloomis

      Exactly right and another great example, Corra! Everything needs to be balanced in a book so an info-dump just to show you as the author understood it doesn’t work either. But, seriously, who wants to go back and read a book from an author who seems to assume no one will know they done goofed? OR, and almost as bad, really thought they understood it when they read a partial summary of whatever subject off Wiki? 😉

      Thanks for your thoughts, Corra. If I read a book that takes place in the Depression I’m going to be on the lookout for boll weevils! 😀

  • travislazar

    I see your point and I am 100% on board when it comes to non-fiction. However, I have a question or two about your philosophy.

    Firstly, you do cover yourself (somewhat) when you dismiss science fiction from having to do proper research, and rightly so. If I remember books like 1984, Ender’s Game, and Jurassic Park correctly they are based on a fictional world with fictional politics and events; who needs research when the author is creating something entirely new to tell his/her story.

    My question is, where do you draw the line between a fiction that requires research and one that does not? While I agree that non-fiction stories and accounts of true events are given merit based entirely on their accuracy, when you talk about any sort of fiction it implies some sort of ‘make believe’. Where do you require research and where do you simply accept that a story is spun from an author’s imagination? I do realize that there are two extremes, close to reality and super fiction, I’m more referring to the grey area between the two.

    I don’t know if I can really even answer this question for myself, in fact I would say it’s decided on a case by case basis. But I’m curious as to where you draw the line since it seems you have created two piles: science fiction, and everything else. Is it as simple as that?

    I don’t actually have a second question, I thought I would come up with one when I started writing this, but nothing came up during the past 10-15 minutes.

    **On a side note, you should watch the movie Equilibrium. Story is based on a sort of 1984-like premise. It doesn’t try to imitate 1984, but it does a pretty damn good job of making all the same points.

    • kimberlyloomis

      If it references something real world, i.e. something solid like a well known philosophy (or even not well-known but a real one not made up by the author) then it needs to be researched. Anna pointed out an author who used a name written into a historical novel that didn’t exist in the time period the story took place in was something that grabbed her attention. Not everyone is as knowledgeable of such things as Anna but the author does herself a disservice by assuming others wouldn’t pick up on such a discrepancy. The only time it’s okay for something to be wrong is if “it” (whatever “it” may be) is done in such a way the author is acknowledging its inaccuracy. But to frame something intentionally wrong the author still had to do research in order to do it.

      World building is completely different (fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal) for obvious reasons. ANYTHING that takes place using items, ideals, clothing, etc in the realm of reality needs to have all their ducks in a row.

  • Joy

    I have the attention span of a gnat, so if some tidbit is out of place, I’m going to be distracted by it to the point where I’ll put the book down and go satisfy my curiosity. Not a good thing. Understand the points you made here. Couldn’t agree more.

  • Elana Johnson

    So very true! I just read a novel that was very political in one area and it had absolutely nothing to do with the novel at all. So disappointing.

    Well said!

    • kimberlyloomis

      Thanks! That really stinks the author did something like that to their work. Part of me always wonders what the editors are up to when things like that manage to get to the bookshelves.

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