Integrating Research into Fiction
Charlie never inherited a chocolate factory. Mr. Darcy never fell for the charms of Elizabeth Bennett. Darth Vader is not really Luke’s father. Fiction is, by definition, an untrue story. The characters are imaginary. The plot is contrived. Nothing about it is real… or is it? Some fiction writers like to introduce a little reality into their novels. They include real people, places, events, and facts. However, this practice is risky. Most fiction readers are not history buffs and do not have scientific minds. An in-depth explanation of the properties of water or the storming of the Bastille may turn the average reader off- even if you feel the research is essential to the plot. How can you tell the truth without angering fantasy-hungry readers?
In my work at Grammarly, I have read articles that successfully incorporate real-world information and the boring kind that I abandoned in the first few paragraphs. I made it my mission to see how to do this right. Here are three pieces of advice based on my discoveries:
(1) Don’t wear smarty-pants that do not fit! John Grisham writes incredible courtroom dramas because he worked in the law profession. He knows his stuff! Readers crave his insider’s view to legal processes that are normally out of range for them. So ask yourself, if you could be a fly on the wall at your job or in a university class, what would you be interested in seeing or discovering? If you had truth serum, what questions would you ask historical figures? Share this intriguing information with your readers. If it is not your area of expertise, find a content area expert who can share something that readers want to know!
(2) "Dumb it down" a little. Do you read medical journals for fun? Even if you do, most of your readers do not. If Robin Cook’s medical thrillers include minute details of diseases written in medical jargon, they would probably not be bestsellers. Assume that your reader is not currently an expert in any field. Provide the information that you want to share in a simple way. One popular strategy is to weave it into the conversations that your characters have.
(3) Real means real! If you are going to talk about Watergate, make sure you get the facts straight. Double-check your facts using well-established sources. If you mistakenly assert that President Hoover was impeached, you lose credibility with the readers who know the truth. With the readers who are not history savvy, you teach them lies that might later cause them to lose thousands on a game show. Do not take this chance! Additionally, make sure your grammar and spelling are impeccable. That impeached president’s name may sound like “Nickson” but that is not how you spell it. If you run your work through an online spellchecker, you will see a red squiggly line under that particular proper noun.
Do the readers need to know? Upon further consideration, have you noticed that the fly on the wall is asleep during your university lecture on mega-hog farming? Leave the boring and non-essential facts out of your fiction. If the information you want to share really is spell-binding and essential to your plot, use the three tips above to make sure it is worthy of your storytelling.
If you do the job well, your readers will not be able to tell fact from fiction.
Nikolas discovered his love for the written word in Elementary School, where he started spending his afternoons sprawled across the living room floor devouring one Marc Brown children’s novel after the other and writing short stories about daring pirate adventures. After acquiring some experience in various marketing, business development, and hiring roles at internet startups in a few different countries, he decided to re-unite his professional life with his childhood passions by joining Grammarly’s marketing team in San Francisco. He has the pleasure of being tasked with talking to writers, bloggers, teachers, and others about how they use Grammarly’s online proofreading application to improve their writing. His free time is spent biking, travelling, and reading.