SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about the need for doing research when writing
Suppose I am writing a novel, and I decide that my main character has “a man problem.” So, he needs to go to see a doctor about his problem. Hmnm, having never had “a man problem,” I am not certain what to call the doctor to whom my intrepid character is going to go see. I open up my Bing search engine, type in a few appropriate search phrases, and voila the answer comes back:
a penologist is the type of doctor my character needs to go and see. Of course, in the real world, my character would actually go and see his general practitioner, who would then make the referral to the appropriate doctor, and so my character might not even need to know to whom he was being referred. But, hey, I know that, it is a subplot, and so I compress time to make it more interesting.
But you know what? Depending on how I handle my newfound wisdom about doctors who treat “man problems” I may end up either looking like I have a great sense of humor (because as it turns out, there really is no penologist who treats “man problems”, or an idiot. While it may be true that there is often a very fine line between humor and idiocy, to ensure one stays on the correct side of said line, one needs to have marshaled the appropriate facts – penologists not withstanding (pun intended).
What do I mean? Well, if I know that the “man problem” doctor is not called a penologist, but I think the term has a certain amount of logical sound to it, I can use the term in dialog. Maybe the main character is talking to his sidekick, often called a Watson in the Mystery genre, and he explains his “man problem.” The Watson says, “dude, you need to see a penologist. That sort of thing is nothing to play around with.”
Ok, so it is not ROFL sort of stuff, but still, perhaps it makes the point – Watson is not the brightest bulb in the house. But, I say, in third person point of view, Damn, this sort of thing was not supposed to happen to healthy, active young men. Oh well, that is life, and no amount of worry or desperate wishes would change it. He grabbed his cell phone and typed in the number for a penologist.
Now, the information is being stated as a fact, and not put in the mouth of the Watson. So, unfortunately, now the writer looks like the idiot. Well, how did I get into the situation in the first place? I did a quick search, and the top five returns all used the term penologist. So, I thought I was good to go.
But I should have known better. The way the Internet works, one site can quickly influence multiple sites with bad information (or good information). Quite often, one site will state something as fact, and it is picked up by search engines, and replicated around the internet, and pretty soon it picks up the weight as an authority. But replication does not equate accuracy, and that is a key thing to bear in mind.
I had a class in graduate school on research methodology. In one of our first assignments, I needed to answer the question “How many Americans poets have won the Nobel Prize?” I did a quick internet search, found a seemingly reputable web site, counted up the American poets on the page, entered the count on the page, and went off to the next question feeling smug. I believe the professor had actually typed that question into a search engine, and had found the site, and realized it was inaccurate – and that she did it on purpose.
The lesson, is this, when things absolutely positively must be accurate, there is no substitute for a professionally edited, peer reviewed publication. If something does not really matter, like the name of the sixties TV show where the bumbling spy used to talk into his shoe, then I will pop open a quick app on my smart phone and type away. In the end, does it really matter if the show was called “I Spy”, “Man from UNCLE”, or “Get Smart?” Probably not. I am not staking either my grade, or my professional reputation on the answer.