Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

“The deckhand cut the engine…”

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"Climbing behind the aft console..."

Note: This post is the fifty-fourth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 53. You can read the previous installments here.

I think it’s fair to assume that most writers these days—fiction and otherwise—do much of their research online. Yet this seems to make some people uncomfortable, as if it were a violation of the implicit contract between author and reader. One possible analogy is to hiring a consultant or an expert witness: you’d feel cheated if you paid somebody for their time and expertise, only to find that he or she was simply googling the answers to all your questions. Indeed, there’s a strong case to be made that the ease of online research circumvents the lengthy period of absorption in a subject that makes true understanding possible: when you get the answer too quickly, you run the risk that your brain won’t be ready for it. I’m willing to believe this, but I have a problem with the idea that the accessibility of so much information somehow renders the novelist less special. As Jonathan Franzen notoriously said to The Guardian: “When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.” But Franzen writes novels that all but advertise the tremendous amount of legwork they required, which implies that it isn’t whether or not you do research that matters, but what kind it is. The novelist’s role, it seems, is to add value to the data that we have at our disposal, and typing a query into a search engine doesn’t cut it.

This is true enough, but it misses the more important point, which is that a novelist can add value even to just the sort of information that we’re likely to come across on the Internet. As anyone who has spent any time researching a complicated issue online has learned, it isn’t simply a matter of clicking on the first search result that you see: you often have to pull together facts from many places, while constantly monitoring the credibility of your sources, and the result is a pattern that didn’t exist before, even though all of the pieces were theoretically available to everyone. This kind of assemblage poses problems of its own, which is part of the reason I spent so much of The Icon Thief using that process to invent a conspiracy theory: it’s what it does best. But when kept under control, and in the right context, that kind of exercise can be immensely valuable as a way of generating beautiful ideas. (Most of the fiction I’ve published in Analog wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the tools that we have for combining and associating bits of isolated data into a surprising shape.) A novelist can also perform a useful public service in the form of a deep dive—the singleminded pursuit of material to fill out a gap in the narrative. Sometimes this means spending weeks researching something that will end up as a couple of sentences, or even get cut altogether. And a writer is obsessive enough to invest that level of attention on the most trifling of details.

"The deckhand cut the engine..."

For instance, I spend a lot of time downloading and reading user manuals. Usually, this is because there’s an arcane piece of hardware in a story that I need to accurately describe, at least to the extent of knowing the right names for all the parts or the actions required for every step in the process. Poking around a little online, once I’ve managed to figure out which search terms to use, often yields useful technical material, especially when I add “filetype:PDF” to the query, and I’ll sometimes spend whole days poring over manuals and spec sheets to make sure I’m getting everything right. The danger, of course, is that the story can turn into a sort of user’s manual itself, in which the author is unwilling to part with any of the factual background that he has so laboriously acquired. (I’m keenly aware of this problem, because it’s particularly troublesome in science fiction and suspense, which are the two genres in which I’ve done the most work.) But it helps to keep the true purpose of this kind of research in mind. As I’ve said many times before, this isn’t about accuracy, which is an incidental benefit; it’s about providing material for dreams. The kind of step-by-step description we find in a user manual, in particular, can serve as a useful backbone or scaffold for the action. If every scene, as I’ve said elsewhere, can be structured as a series of objectives, a manual is nothing less than a one-act play with a beginning, middle, and end, and it climaxes when the user triumphantly completes the repair or installation.

Obviously, it’s possible to take this sort of thing too far, and we’ve all had the experience of reading a story that fails to keep the research where it belongs—in the background. But when properly utilized, it can give shape to the more important things taking place up front. Chapter 53 of Eternal Empire, for example, is all about the evacuation of the sinking yacht after it has been attacked by a drone, which is the kind of big set piece that can quickly degenerate into a bunch of disconnected fragments. Being able to accurately describe, say, the procedure for lowering a lifeboat was a huge deal for me. If you read the scene closely, you see that the characters are almost always doing something, even while more important narrative material receives the most emphasis. It’s a little like the bits of business, like lighting a cigarette, that actors use to do something with their hands, except that every tiny action feeds back to the throughline of the scene, which is to escape safely from the yacht. Much of it came from the lifeboat and sea safety manuals I found online, which briefed me on the vocabulary I needed to get the sequence onto the page. If the reader notices it, I haven’t done my job, but without it, the scene would just lie there. And it’s the kind of research that would be prohibitively difficult if it weren’t for the combination of easy accessibility and the writer’s willingness to spend ungodly amounts of time on it. Writers can and should read user manuals. After all, they may be the only ones who ever will…

Written by nevalalee

May 26, 2016 at 8:48 am

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