I’ve gotten some interesting blowback since I decided to go public with my irritation over JRR Tolkien’s puzzling geomorphology. Among the “well actually” and personal insults, there’ve been a more interesting complaint, with variations. To paraphrase: “Writers shouldn’t have to be an experts on everything just to tell a story!”
Well, yes and no.
To be fair to my geological whinging (and that of many other nitpickers across a multitude of different fields), you don’t actually have to be an expert at anything to get most of this stuff right. The geology is level 101 stuff you would cover in the Freshman classes fondly called “Rocks for Jocks” at my old university. The amount of research you have to do to get particular details that are ancillary to your story correct is probably very small. Take a half hour out of your day to do some googling. Ask a friend who is knowledgeable in that area. Read a single book about it, and you’ll likely be covered.
Actually knowing that you lack the knowledge or what you’ve absorbed from other novels and TV is incorrect so that you’d better start asking questions is the much more difficult part. Because you have realized by now, right, that art and reality often diverge?
I think the much more important question here is: do you care if you get it right?
I’m going to add an extremely important caveat: There are certain topics, particularly when it comes to the lives and histories of marginalized groups, where you can and will hurt people by not doing your research. For example: books that promulgate racist tropes or racist historical narratives. Now, maybe you don’t care if you hurt people, in which case I think you’re an awful person and you probably don’t care about that either. But for the most part, we can apply the principle of “First, do no harm” here.
But the course of your river making no goddamn sense in a world where water works the same way it does on Earth? This harms precisely no one. It might irritate people who have a basic understanding of geomorphology, but irritation is not the same thing as being harmed. The decision you’re really facing as a writer is if you can handle people complaining about it, and at absolute worst not buying your next book if it pisses them off that bad. (In which case they were probably looking for hyper-realistic world-building-porn fantasy and wouldn’t really be your target audience anyway.)
Part of this is a question of audience expectation. What expectation are you setting up for them? There’s been a lot of fantasy written that projects a veneer of realism (eg: Game of Thrones, and frankly Lord of the Rings) which means that when the details fail, people with a reason to understand those details take notice. If you want to be “realistic,” you have to do the work or risk someone catching you being lazy and saying now wait a damn minute loudly and in public1. The audience is generally not going to approach something that purports to be realistic with the same expectations they will approach something that says on the package it takes place in a bananapants land where rocks float and rivers run backwards due to the population of magic-farting unicorns.
Even if you clearly project that this is bananapants-land, you’re still going to get complainers, though. This is because you’re working in a genre full of fucking nerds. And you know what nerds do? They pick apart things they hate using the lens of their specialized knowledge, and they pick apart things they love even more. And then they talk about it, incessantly.
Only this isn’t a thing limited to nerds in the classic genre sense. Firefighters shred movies like Backdraft and enjoy it in all its awful glory. If you write a sportsball book and you get the sportsball details wrong, I’m pretty sure the people who like sportsball will eat you alive. This is a human thing. When you have knowledge, you notice when something is wrong, and then you tell other people about it.
So wait, am I saying you do have to be an expert in everything? No, I’m saying you have to be okay with experts reading what you wrote and possibly finding it wanting.
When I was doing my screenwriting coursework, there were two things I heard in every class, without fail:
- Give yourself permission to suck.
- Never let the facts get in the way of the truth.
Rule number two here means that if reality gets in the way of the story you’re constructing, the story wins. Screw reality. This is probably the reason why pretty much every movie ever made causes experts to tear out their hair.
I don’t think this should be considered blanket permission to just make everything up and not even try. There are a multitude of books and movies that are terribly researched, and the fact of the matter is, if they’d actually given reality a chance their conflicts and twists would have been a hell of a lot more interesting and challenging for the characters. But you’re writing a story, not a textbook. So write your story. Just realize that this is not a get out of jail free card from ever being criticized about anything.
(Though I will say, if this criticism of your work is dropped steaming into your inbox or tagged at you on social media, that is rude as fuck on the part of the angry nerd. If you choose to read it, that’s your problem.)
Ultimately, you have to decide what you want to get right, and what you’re fine with getting yelled at about. I’m sure all of the physics stuff in what I write is terrible, because I prefer handwavium-fueled rule of cool physics to real physics. Thus, I do not give even half a shit if someone complains that my physics suck, because I was never trying to get them correct in the first place. The people who complain are still allowed to complain, and I’m allowed to ignore them. It’s a feature, not a bug.
And even for the stuff you want to get right, I have some bad news: you’re probably not going to nail down every detail perfectly. Worlds are complex things, and there will always be nitpickers who know more about something than you. It is impossible to write a book that is universally loved and never criticized for anything, and worrying over it will induce a sort of creative paralysis that will make writer’s block look like a fun day at a water park. The fact that you are a writer means that someone, somewhere, is going to hate the thing you wrote—or love it but wish you had just gotten the right breed of horse in that one scene—and they are going to take to the internet and talk about it.
1 – As an aside, actually having a basis in reality versus being perceived as realistic are often two incredibly different things, and when you’ve got an audience that lacks expert knowledge it’s another wrinkle in the expectation game. That’s why, and I will use hilariously here to mean that I’m going to laugh so I don’t scream, there are sectors of readers who think ubiquitous sexual assault in medieval-Europe-flavored fantasy is “realistic” and the presence of non-white people in such a setting is “unrealistic.” Where actual realism flies in the face of the pop culture zeitgeist of “realism,” I encourage you strongly to challenge your readers because it’s good for them. Just be ready with your research notes.