When Research Isn’t Enough

Okay, first of all, don’t research aviation the way I did, it’s really expensive.*

But sometimes book research isn’t enough. I was writing a scene where characters were uncoupling a train once, and for the life of me, I couldn’t understand how the Janney coupling system worked from all the pictures and descriptions I found online. I trotted off to the local train museum and when I told them what my main mission for the visit was, they were kind enough to let me past the ropes  to get a good close look at one from all angles. They’re actually rather ingenious, incidentally – it’s no wonder they’ve been using them for over a hundred years.

So anyway, I was writing about aeroplanes and if you’ve been following for any length of time, that research resulted in me getting a commercial pilot licence.

But obviously it’s not practical for every author to either restrict their writing to topics they’re intimately familiar with. Neither is it practical for every author who wants to write about a profession to spend thousands of dollars on a professional level of training on the subject.

Recently I picked up a book because it had a plane on the front, because that’ll totally sell me a novel. I got to the flying parts, and I could tell the author had done *some* research on aviation, but it was also obvious that the author was not a pilot.**

There was some talk about crosswinds, and such, it was going fairly decent, and I was willing to overlook the comment about three hundred feet being really high. There was terminology, and it was being used mostly correctly. The fact that he wasn’t going into too much detail, calling it gas instead of fuel, being an idiot who didn’t plan the flight ahead of time, I could chalk all that up to the author not wanting to bore the reader with technical details, and the main character being an inexperienced pilot.

But then the main character was taking off, and halfway through the takeoff roll, he was worried about not having enough runway left. So the character gives it more gas.

And this is just one of those little mistakes that a non-pilot will never pick up on, and an author might not ever even think to look up. It’s one of those “you don’t know what you don’t know” situations. How many people who aren’t pilots would even think to look up how much power to use on take-off?

And yet, this is something covered in the first flight lesson – there’s never any reason to ever initiate a take-off roll with less than full power.

And then the plane became more and more heavily featured toward the end of the book, and the aviation elements took a turn for the worse. The location of the fuel tanks became relevant to the plot, and it became clear that the author had no idea the fuel tanks in a metal skinned aircraft are typically inside the wings, and had the main character specifically states that the fuel tanks in a small GA Cessna are in the tail section. At one point the main character used full power and stick back to counter a spiral dive, which is literally the opposite of what you do in a spiral dive.

The pinnacle of it all was when they were doing a pass “low and slow” and the narrative described how dangerous it was to fly near stall speed at low altitude. Which it is. And it’s great that the author threw in the mention of stall speed at an appropriate time. But then the narrative explained why it was so dangerous – close to the ground, he wouldn’t have time to attempt to restart the engine if they stalled.

Yep; author is conflating an engine stall with an aerodynamic stall, and thinks when you get close to stall speed, the engine quits.

And the rest of the book was mostly good, and that’s the most frustrating thing. None of it was so bad that the plot didn’t work if it were revised for accuracy. If the author had got a pilot to read it over, none of this would have got past a pilot. It would have been so easy to fix.

And again, I wouldn’t say that authors shouldn’t write about topics they’re not experts in. But it’s things like this that show how important it is to have expert beta readers. Not just consultants, because instances like this show that something can slip in so easily without the author realizing it’s a mistake and thinking to ask about it.

There’s a lot of resources out there – some places you may even be able to find expert beta readers in forums or such deigned specifically to match up experts with authors who need them. Don’t be afraid to write about interesting and exciting things and professions, but if you do, do it right, and do it justice.

*Just kidding, do it and if you love it, go for it!
** I’m not going to name the book because I hate being mean and writing negative reviews, I just want to use some of the content as an example.
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8 responses to “When Research Isn’t Enough

  1. Good post, Lindsay—

    I am struggling with the same issue with my space opera parody. I want the space maneuvering aspects to be at least somewhat accurate. It’s supposed to be humorous but I want my readers to laugh for the right reasons.

    • I don’t know if it’s something you already know about, but the video game Kerbal Space Program is well worth a look for space reference. It contextualises orbital mechanics in a visual, intuitive way; stuff that a lot of scifi STILL gets wrong (such as thrust changing velocity not maintaining it, or that you won’t be pulled into a planet from a stable orbit because the engines went offline). It’s also wacky and cartoony, but in ways that are exaggerated or simplified, rather than scientifically ignorant.

      I guess research gives you factual info, but it doesn’t always dispel misconceptions. As Lindsay says: you don’t know that you don’t know. But games can help, somewhat (especially in cases like spaceflight, where we’ve got a pretty remote chance of applying the principles first-hand).

  2. Hi Lindsay! Fellow author and (non-current)pilot; love the blog. This entry was especially interesting.

    ~ “Okay, first of all, don’t research aviation the way I did, it’s really expensive.”

    Yeah… can say that again. Pretty much reason #1 for why I let my PPL lapse, much as I loved it. It doesn’t really get any less expensive as you go.

    ~ “But then the main character was taking off, and halfway through the takeoff roll, he was worried about not having enough runway left. So the character gives it more gas.”

    Ha, love it! I wrote a post some years back –when I was fretting about my obsession with multi-classing hobbies rather than, y’know, actually focusing on something– in which I was wondering if vocation-diluting was a good idea: I hadn’t spent every waking hour being a writer, so would I ever be able to stand alongside those that have? But eventually I consoled myself with the notion that writing is as much a product of our life experiences as our practice at it. I’d like to think the example above is a tangible case of where an experience beyond writing really would make the work better.

    ~ “And again, I wouldn’t say that authors shouldn’t write about topics they’re not experts in. But it’s things like this that show how important it is to have expert beta readers.”

    Beta-readers are definitely a good idea. But I think that if you’ve got first-hand experience, the subject will permeate your writing at a deeper level. Short of being able to really do it, some (accurate) video games are a good way to absorb situations beyond the realm of everyday experience. Of course, finding out if they’re accurate or not is kinda a regression of the research problem, but you get a more hands-on understanding of how things work than from references.

    ~ “Don’t be afraid to write about interesting and exciting things and professions, but if you do, do it right, and do it justice.”

    This. So much this. I mean, I’m sure I’ve made gaffs here and there, but I think it’s always important to do the homework.

    • Oh yes; I do a lot of writing about aeroplanes, and for the most part I don’t need an expert beta reader for what I’m writing. I do however still consult with pilots who have more experience than me, or AMEs who have certain knowledge that pilots might not necessarily have. But I also have a lot of friends and acquaintances who are pilots, from bush pilots to 747 pilots, and I work at an air ambulance company with in house maintenance so maintenance personnel are kicking around all the time to ask questions of, and I don’t have to worry about whether or not they legitimately know their stuff.

      The guy from my most recent post, who claimed he didn’t need to be accurate because his audience wouldn’t know better, also claimed to be a CFI, but he also insisted that a steep turn involved cross-controlling, which is a sure way to induce a spin, so I just kind of nodded and walked away.

      • Huh, odd. I wouldn’t expect an instructor to confuse a steep turn with a sideslip, which is what it sounds like. Assuming he is actually a CFI of course… but why make that up?

        I’m always intrinsically opposed to the “audience won’t know better” approach, anyway. Even if it paid off (I doubt it does), I think the conscious inaccuracy would annoy me.

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