Faking Book Research ~ Edmond Manning: Outside the Margins

Join us as Edmond Manning goes Outside the Margins.

Edmond Manning OTMFaking Book Research

I suppose I might have fudged a few factoids on grade school reports concerning the Loch Ness Monster. Who could prove me wrong? Maybe I was a little generous in listing sources in my social studies report on Egypt. But my first serious abuse of faking research came in eighth grade.

Mrs. Frenz’ assigned her English class a book report, non-fiction only, and since I already swam furiously and daily in the ocean of fiction, I felt reading a non-fiction book beneath me. It wouldn’t have killed me, I know. But I found non-fiction distasteful, the ugly step-sibling to handsome fiction. You couldn’t invite fiction to the party without the other one showing up saying, “I know a good biography about Thomas Jefferson.”

Groan.

Instead of simply complying–reading and reporting on a non-fiction book—I decided to prove the power of fiction by inventing and then reporting on a non-fiction book: Spiders On The Sea. Yes, you read that title correctly. Spiders On The Sea. The imaginary book (and thus, my book report) detailed a curious little spider species that lived on salt-water beaches and ate tiny eggs, decaying fish, whatever washed ashore. They had to be careful not to get swept into a big wave, so they were fast runners. Out hunting for yummy fish parts

I made up many, many details about their arachnid lives. Favorite foods. Predators. The type of fish they preferred. How they would battle tiny crabs in their shells for home turf.

Honestly, it would have been easier to just read a damn book.

I was even cocky enough to make sure the nom de plume used for this fake author spelled out my name with his initials, and I layered other little clues that should have earned me an F+ (I like to think the + would be recognition of my creativity.)

Being that I was an idiot junior high kid, I bragged to my buddies about this fake book. We had to read our reports before the class and when it came time for the Q&A portion of my book report, I turned beet red when my friends jumped their hands straight into the air, eager for a chance to grill me.

“I tried to find this book in our library and couldn’t find it. Where did you say you got it?”

“What climates do these spiders prefer?”

I blushed furiously and stammered out answers as best I could while they snickered and leered.

The worst question was asked by a smart-alec friend: “This author’s name looks strangely familiar to me? Do I know him?”

Mrs. Frenz said my report was “very thorough,” and much to my in-the-know friends’ chagrin, I received a B+ for Spiders On The Sea. Friends who got lesser grades on real books were not terribly amused.

Given my early success at faking research, you would think this would steer me toward greater abuses (if that were possible).

Nope. Never again.

I chuckled at my brazen lies while writing the book report but the very second after I dropped it on Mrs. Frenz desk, all that bravado turned to ash. What if I were caught? What if I were expelled? My father was a teacher in this school system. Of course, he would be told that his liar son faked an entire book report and made an idiot of a teacher. Truth is, I liked Mrs. Frenz quite a bit—why did I crap all over her assignment?

The agony between submitting the report and waiting to be discovered made me wish I had never attempted my spider story.

Though I did not experience any negative consequences (other than the most uncomfortable Q&A of my entire young life) I developed a paranoia about not fully researching a given topic. Specifically, getting caught. My research papers in high school and college were solid. I always looked up primary sources and made sure they weren’t quoting someone else. I hated that feeling of being a fake, of hoping to not get caught with pages of lies.

As an author of fiction, I think I’m now extended more flexibility to fudge my research. Hell, I can make up entire science fiction worlds if I like and when a reader demands to know how an entire world economy can be based on trading turtle shells, I can say, “Because I said so.”

At last! Freedom from research!

But.

I find myself stuck.

I want my books to feel authentic, to feel as though I know exactly of which I speak. In 2012, my first non-imaginary book, King Perry, hit the shelves.KingPerry In one scene, the narrator reveals an ice cooler he has bound to the Pacific ocean rocky shoreline with thick ropes. Completely implausible, you say? When in California researching details on the book, I bought an ice cooler, filled it with snacks, and purchased enough rope to bind it to heavy rocks. I drove to the coast and searched until I found the ideal rock formation for my experiment. Research paid off. The experiment worked!

In 2014, I published a book titled The Butterfly King, set in New York City. I did not feel I could write a whole book which took place in New York City without living there, without understanding not only the logistics of moving through the city, but the flavor, the people, the mood. I needed a much richer understanding than I achieved as an extended weekend traveler. I read a few books about New York but they were so…fist-pumping and relentlessly energetic that I realized I did not trust them. I needed to research the primary source material. So I rented an apartment for a month, slept on a mattress on the floor, and began my adventure as a New Yorker.

And while I could never actually claim to be a New Yorker, I did learn things about the city, the subways, the people flow, I would never have learned any other way. The research was necessary. Expensive, but necessary.

I have come to value research.

Even though I now have liberty to lie about some details, to create some fictions for fiction, I find myself wanting more real-world details spot-on so that my inventions are not as obvious. I want the details to feel so real, readers ponder is this true? Or am I reading a work of non-fiction disguised as fiction?

Apparently I have come to value fiction non-fiction as well.

But I’m frustrated these days as I research the fourth book in my Lost and Found series, which takes place at Burning Manburning-man11

I’ve never been to Burning Man. I don’t know how it works, fully. I’ve read two books. Watched a Netflix documentary. Followed BM ranting arguments on tribe.org and I have six Burning Man blogs bookmarked. It’s not possible for me to rent an apartment at Burning Man for a month as I did in New York because the experience only exists for a week and a half at the end of August. I can’t merely wait until August to go to Burning Man. I think readers might come to my house and throw rotten zucchini at me if I announced, “I’m writing nothing in the next installment until I can attend Burning Man eight months from now.”

Plus, after surviving skin cancer a decade ago, my dermatologist gave me parting advice that’s been rather difficult to forget: “Try to stay out of the sun for the rest of your life.” I don’t think she’d approve my spending nine days in a desert where the only available shade is whatever you carry in.

I’m going to have imperfect research.

It’s making me nervous.

I know fiction writers do this all the time. They write about Victorian England or feudal life during the Middle Ages and use the best information available. Whatever gaps exist in their knowledge, they invent. No biggie. But the thing is, nobody busts them. They don’t get emails from people eight hundred years who complain, ‘That is NOT how we ate dinner back then.’ Except for a few anachronisms, nobody questions their research if it’s generally ‘in the ball park.’

I think there’s a bigger life lesson for me beyond a writer’s perspective in all this: live with ambiguity. Be willing to get a few details wrong in service to a greater truth. Let go of needing to get everything right.

Yeah, yeah. Growth opportunity.

I’m always surprised how often my personal growth opportunities intersect with my opportunities to become a stronger writer. When readers ask, ‘how much of yourself is in this book,’ they often mean the characters. But what they do not realize is how much the process of writing pushes an author’s buttons around any number of topics: self-discipline, the ability to empathize with others, willingness to master your least favorite skill, ability to be carried by a story instead of controlling it. And of course, how much to research.

I will keep researching and do my best to get details right while at the same time do my best to accept that I won’t get every detail right. I will try to grow more accepting of myself in this regard and dial down that low-level anxiety that sometimes hums in the back of my mind, wondering if I’m going to get caught.

They say that sometimes an author’s greatest curse is a wildly successful first book and I can confirm this point. I’m sure my anxiety over research can be traced to the early success of my “first” publication, Spiders On The Sea. Damn that B+. Totally was not worth it.

~ Edmond Manning

Farewell Giveaway
I have a number of paperbacks, most of which are signed, to giveaway. Over the between now (11 Mar 2017) and 31 Mar 2017, every comment on the blog (this post and all other new posts), will be entered to win 1 of these paperbacks. There are also some misc swag items, so there will be a few packs of these to give away as well.

Thank you so much for your support over the last 4 years. Prism will be closing its doors on 1 April 2017. All content will remain available, but no new content will appear after 31 Mar 2017. As such all request forms have been turned off. Again Thank you,

Brandilyn
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26 thoughts on “Faking Book Research ~ Edmond Manning: Outside the Margins

  1. Most authors would probably prefer to research things firsthand, but it’s not always feasible given the EDJ, lack of travel money, and time constraints. So we fake it, and most of us do it pretty well. The advent of the internet, and most especially Google maps, gives us the details, even the visuals we need to make things come to life.

    I love research, but I don’t always want what I put in the story to be 100 percent accurate. Sometimes, I need to fudge things a little to make room for a plot point or two. I’m good with that. 🙂

    • Y’know, Theo, I’m learning to be okay with that. I want accuracy as much as fits my story. But I intentionally wrote my Lost and Found series in the 90s (mostly), so if someone says, “HEY…there is no XYZ business in San Francisco at the time!” I can shrug it off and say, “But there might have been…” And yes…Google maps is amazing for research!!

  2. Not being a writer, nor having the creative mind that creates the worlds that I enjoy so much in fiction, I tend to go with the flow of the story. Not being 100% accurate is ok unless the story contains information about a place I actually know and it is so far off base that it pulls me out of the story. Especially in a contemporary setting. I appreciate the research authors put into detailing their stories, whether it is through online / book research or actually experiencing a place first hand.
    Edmund, I see that it would not be in your best interest to go to Burning Man but I know that I would absolutely love the reports you would give us on your experience. 😀

    • if I could go to Burning Man for a day or two and then go back to my Holiday Inn room with a hot tub…I’d totally go. I think it would be crazy fun. One of the biggest, most irritating ‘fake moments’ in a book I read was The DiVinci Code. I know a lot of that art history was faked to fit the story, and as Theo said, that’s totally okay. I mean, that’s why it’s fiction. But when I kept encountering non-essential details that I knew were WRONG from taking a freshman-level art history class…it got really hard to stay invested in the story.

  3. Love your post since it pulled me up short and made me think. The stories I’ve written so far are all set in Ireland because I know this place, know the people, know what they sound like and what the locations where I set those stories look like. I’m playing with the idea of setting a story in Holland but haven’t yet found the courage since I’ve been away for a while now (except for short visits) and can’t be sure I’d get it right. Wow, it’s not something I’d thought about until today. I just went with my instincts without lingering on where they might come from.

    Thank you for giving me something to ponder today.

    • Helena, a lot of authors manage to set their stories in a specific setting and get it right without being too detailed…they still manage to capture the flavor of the city or locale. I think I make it too hard on myself sometimes. Go for it – you know a ton about Holland from having grown up there. I bet it would be like a trip home to write about that place.

  4. First of all, I am completely in awe that you pulled that off in 8th grade.

    I love the pride you take in your work and the measures you take to research surely pay off in your books. Love this post. Thanks for sharing.

  5. “… how much the process of writing pushes an author’s buttons…” <<<<< stepping away from the research a bit, this rightchere is so, so, so very true.

    stepping back to the research, any research done is such a plus, but as Theo said, it's not always possible. I know, for me, one of the most wonderful things about King Perry was the feeling of being RIGHTTHERE with Vin and Perry, especially in locations like the GGB, the whole uh "duck incident", everything. I was there several decades ago, so a lot of it rang very true. On the other hand, any detail that has to be fudged is ok, especially if it's surrounded by other not so fudgy stuff.

    You may have already thought about this re: Burning Man, but maybe try asking if anyone on those blogs would be willing to do an extensive interview with you (for research, not pub, obvs :p ) about their experiences, how it all works, etc.

    also, this idea excites meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

    • thanks for the shout out on King Perry…I figure if the events were going to be insane in that story, everything else should be as realistic as possible. And yes…I do have people-research planned for Burning Man. I’m reading a few books first so I can ask the questions I want to ask. Just last week, I was contacted by a gay man who read and loved the king books. He said, “Have you ever thought about setting one at Burning Man? That would be fun.” Turns out he’s gone for seven years (this year will be eight) and was VERY HAPPY to help me with his stories and observations!

  6. So, you’re sticking with the “I lived in New York for a month” story? Even though you asked me to Photoshop you into all those New York scenes? Oh, okay. It sounds like you DID learn something from that middle-school experience – how to cover your tracks even better! 🙂

    Seriously, I completely understand what you’re saying. When I read stories located in places I know well, inaccuracies are a real distraction. I’m absolutely fine with ignoring what’s clearly made up. I don’t mind if you go into great detail about a non-existent store squeezed in between my real dry cleaner and favorite bar. But don’t get the bar wrong.

    Last year, I read a book that was based, partly, at Burning Man. I loved reading it (partly) because I’d followed the author’s preparation for his upcoming trip to Burning Man in real life. I loved thinking, “OH! That’s why he needed the crazy metallic pants and matching hoodie that he bought at Betabrand in SF.” The conversations, the specific things he saw, I was willing to give a lot on that.

    I’m sure you have plenty of resources at your disposal – including a number of friends who’ve gone to Burning Man. I’ll bet they’ll help.

    I can’t wait to read about your next adventure (or to Photoshop your next set of pics). =)

    • Tim, if I send you pictures of naked celebrities found online, can you Photoshop us doing things together? Like… “things…”

  7. Thanks for coming clean but for some odd reason, I don’t think it will take away from the brilliance of what book 4 will bring for Vin and your readers. We trust you! 😀

    • Awwww….thank you, Trish! It’s funny to see this entire ‘research wall’ of my house where there’s papers and notes, and scribbles, and maps start to get assembled. It’s like a crazy-person lives here. Sorta.

  8. I adored this post! First off, because, if you recall, I’ve asked you a few times if you really did this or that… or how did you know something or other and damn if you didn’t reply with a photo! Secondly, it makes me laugh because of how often Helena and I joked about #research for our upcoming novella. Her hubby, Dermot was often forced into being an unwilling/unwitting participant. We are in the process of working on the sequel at the moment, and he is being most uncooperative this time round. I really don’t understand it. I’ll suggest Helena show him this post so he can see what lengths others have gone to for #research. Maybe he’ll have a change of heart. ;o)

    • Poor Dermot! You do understand there are absolute limits on what you can ask a straight man to do in the name of research, right? I’m glad you guys talk about that stuff, too. It’s like Tim said a few comments above – you can make up the business between the bar and dry cleaner…but get the bar right! That was well said – sometimes a story’s believability is in the details. Other times not…other times it’s in the characters’ ‘realism.’

  9. You so ably expressed why I can not write fiction … my need for all the points to be truthful. My art is the same way … it has to be based in reality. I loved the description fiction non-fiction! You might PM Adam Lambert as he is an artist with words & has been to Burning Man. He could give you an authentic description of his experience. He uses & understands words like you do. I love listening to storytellers give us experiences … this falls under research to me. Words … either written or spoken … are equally important. Your post expressed my own thoughts so eloquently … why I love reading your words!

    • Ann, thank you for such a lovely reply! It’s funny to me how many people know someone who has been to Burning Man once or twice. 50% of the people I talk to say, “What’s Burning Man?” The other 50% say, “Oh sure. I know someone who went.”

    • Ethan, you know, I get anxious when I think about it. There are now roughly 60,000 people who attend. That’s an intense crowd of people for a city that “doesn’t exist” a week or two prior. It’s nuts. As I understand it, on closing day, as people try to leave, it’s a 8 hour wait in your car to try to move 2-3 miles of road. Those kind of logistics freak me out. So maybe you didn’t miss much by not going…

  10. Edmond,

    I will need a complete list of places – real or imaginary -you’ve spent any time living, any subjects you are seven a pseudo authority on, or thing you might fancy in to visit or learn in the future. That way I can avoid all such topics in any book I choose to write in the future. I would be entirely red faced if I you were to pick up one of my books and see my PhD (Piled Higher than Deep) in those things pales in comparison to yours.

    Also, is your company hiring? I’d kill to get a month off, if I try to get met more than 2 weeks they question me and 3 weeks isn’t worth the weeks of intense grilling from bosses and co-workers who want to know why I ‘need’ three full weeks off. 😛

    Lovely post. You should write a satire of your research skill some time 😀

    -AQG

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