Two topics have been weighing on my mind for a while, about authors and research.
After a brief Twitter near-argument with EJ James’s husband, Niall Leonard, I decided I decided I needed to get one of them off my chest.
A lot of people from the area I now live, good ol’ Washington itself, in the town “blesses” to be Ana’s hometown, have asked why Christian gave Ana a Blackberry when he was otherwise hooked on MacBooks and iPods. I learned today that Erika thought that the Blackberry was the most popular phone in the US. A little clicking around would have shown her the iPhone has not only been popular, but is the phone most people think of when hearing “smart phone.
See, I asked why Blackberries, which were tanking worldwide by early 2012, were used in the books instead of the more popular iPhone, especially considering all the other Apple products. Niall claimed popularity is perception and that I was “trying to be ahead of the times” and that the IPhones weren’t popular yet by the time these books take place, which is 2012. I said yes they were, even in business, very quickly after their initial release (they were being adopted by businesses within two week of release in 2008). I was there in person when the iPhone was announced at MacWorld 2008 and was in the first group of people in the world, outside the developers, to see the phone, and was in the middle of it on release in June of that year. As a tech employee at that time, I had connections up in Washington, in Seattle, who complained about the phones selling out before they could outfit their staff with them. I am correct in this matter. A literally one-minute-long Google search answered why the Leonards thought the Blackberries were the most popular phones in 2012. See, Blackberries were the most popular phones in 2012…in their home region.
Do you get where this is going? That’s right. I have a major pet peeve about a lack of research. I’m sure the title of this post gave that away. Niall, an author himself, is defending not researching what you write.
See, if an author sets a story in the real world, whether or not there are supernatural elements for the characters, and wants people to shell over their hard-earned money, then the author has the obligation to spend a few minutes on Google making sure the factual details are correct. Despite Niall’s claim to the contrary, facts aren’t subject to an author’s perception. The issue of whether or not the iPhone had attained popularity in the US, the settings of these books, prior to 2012 is just one example of a lack of research in these books. ”
This is a problem that has gone on for ages, but is less acceptable in an era when most people in the first world have access to the internet.
An example that strikes me particularly hard is The Babysitters Club. Like most girls in the late 80’s and early 90’s I was hooked on them. Like a lot of kids, I thought books set in the real world would have told the truth about big topics and serious matters. I think a lot of old fans will nod to this – the issue of Stacey’s diabetes. Diabetes was portrayed as a disease always requiring insulin and one bite of anything with sugar could lead to death, or at the least a hospital stay, despite this being false. It was presented as a disease that always needed insulin, which is also false. Stacey’s symptoms included such common things as being thirsty and needing to go to the bathroom in the middle night, which are correct – when they are excessive and in combination with other symptoms she wasn’t mentioned as having in her backstories. Many of my friends were scared they were diabetic because they occasionally woke in the night to pee or get a drink of water because of this series. On occasion a kid was correct, but the overwhelming majority of the time the incorrect presentation caused needless fear.
Now it’s true Ann M. Martin didn’t have internet access back then, but she claims to have been a school teacher, and teachers have to know at least the basics of illnesses likely to affect their students. This is an instance where not doing the research resulted in many terrified little girls. I remember being horrified when a friend of mine, back when the original edition of this book was still on shelves, was asked to take some cookies to her diabetic sister by our teacher. The teacher was killing my friend’s sister! I realized later that that teacher, a teacher like Ann, was required to know facts about diseases affecting kids. Other lack-of-research issues abound in that series, but none had quite the impact as diabetes. However her particularly horrid treatment of autism is egregious, and I won’t even start on that one.
Certainly by the time Twilight came around internet access was common even in small towns. Yet in an early chapter if the first book in the series a teacher grabs a student’s hand and stabs his finger without informing the student. This is against the law. It’s assault. I don’t think I even need to go find laws backing why you can’t draw blood on a minor without notice. A couple of the bigger issues taking less research to learn is that Stephenie Meyer sent Bella and Edward several miles into the ocean to a secluded island off the west coast of Brazil for their honeymoon:
and that Rosalie’s family wasn’t hit at all by the Great Recession because her father was a banker. In reality bankers were among the hardest hit. They had the most to lose since they kept all their money in the same investments as their clients, and they lost all. They didn’t even have little family farms to go to, and often knew nothing of how to do manual labor.
But if we loop back to the top, the bigger issue with Fifty Shades is that adequate research was not done. Erika pulled a standard slave contract off the internet and passed it off as submissive contract after a quick search-replace, and otherwise refused further research on BDSM. While this is just dangerous, other things irk locals, of which I am one. The book has them driving south through Vancouver to get onto I5 to get to Portland. Let’s take a little look at a map.
If you want to drive THROUGH Vancouver to reach a north-south interstate, you’d have to go east or west. Vancouver has on-ramps every quarter mile or so, and getting to them requires going east or west. I know because…I LIVE IN VANCOUVER. The characterization is Portland and Vancouver are just plain wrong. Never once does it rain in these books. Ever. Yes, we do get rain year round, at least mild sprinkles. Locals I know who’ve read these books has asked why it never rains, even in Seattle. These details may not seem big, but they not only are vital to bringing a location to life and to make it identifiable to those living in the region, but show respect. Aside from one, every person I’ve spoken to in this area has been offended by these books, and as a regular at OHSU, a setting in the third book, I can tell you that that hospital is furious with how they were presented. HIPAA violations galore that would have them shut down in real life. Just to give you the briefest of ideas, here is a panoramic shot I took last time I was there of OHSU’s very small waiting room where doctors in the books go to give families information on their loved ones (notice the lack of privacy or space to talk privately):
Ultimately what this boils down to is RESPECT. Unless you’re setting a book in an alternate universe, such as Middle Earth or the not-quite-real-world in the graphic novel Watchmen (which took place during Richard Nixon’s third term in office), I believe it’s lazy writing and outright disrespectful to readers to slack off and not care. Think of a time you’ve read a real-world-setting book and were jarred out of the story by a detail that would have been easy to verify. The product you were sold slammed you because the author chose not to research. I can understand overlooking something once or twice, but doing it over and over again is too much to be passed off as simple error.
Ah, but how much do I apply this to my own work? Well, during a meal I had the characters drink wine. I surveyed friends who drink more wine than I do and some real chefs to find out what wine would be appropriate. This is a wine mentioned only in passing. I made sure the mansion that was temporarily rented in Sacred Blood was actually available during that time. I ran an archery scene by some serious archers to make sure the facts were correct. That trapeze school on the pier in Santa Monica? Yes, that’s real. The strip club? I’ll let you find that one on your own, but it’s real. I even called a small-town grocery store in Canada to make sure the products I listed in a chapter were actually available there, and used Google Earthview to make sure I used the right roof color. To make sure the topography was right in locations only in minor scenes I still consulted with others who know better.
In the second book (still in first draft mode), the art gallery Juliette went to sold art by the artist I mentioned (though I won’t share it now so you don’t know where in the world she may be), and I verified the road conditions, and when I found out that an accident had happened on one of the roads when Juliette was driving it (yes, the books have dates, though never explicitly stated), I mentioned the two helicopters that life-flighted people out of there. How rough CPR was? Real. How “it” happens with the chin in the third book? Yes, that’s possible. Pardon my crypticness on “it,” but that would be a spoiler.
Who would know if I left out that accident, or mentioned a product not actually available, or if a particular ballet didn’t actually happen where I set it? Does it matter? No. I, as an author, have an obligation to my readers, and honestly to the people who live in the various locations, and if I set a story in the real-world, then I need to accurately portray the real world.
In short, I am irked when other authors, commercially published authors, don’t live up to the same expectations for respecting their millions of readers as I have for myself regarding my tens – I’m not yet published, though will be soon – of readers. Respect them for their willingness to part with money that can take a couple hours to earn and the hours they’ll spend reading your work.