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The Genius Computer Hacker: How Good Does Research Have To Be?

Sunday, 10 January 2010

I've recently finished reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first in Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy. It was an engrossing read, although I suspect I wasn't quite as taken with it as many have been. Lisbeth Salander, she with the tattoo, is certainly a great character, and the book deals well with some large and important themes. I'll undoubtedly seek out the other two volumes at some point. I did, however, feel that the book would have benefited from further editing.

Anyway, this post isn't a review. What I want to talk about is believability and research and, as an example, the treatment of computers and computer hacking in the book. Whenever I read that computers play a significant role in a novel, I experience a slight sinking feeling. Almost invariably, as I read, it becomes clear that the the writer doesn't really know what they're talking about. Sometimes it's a basic thing that gives the game away, like muddling memory with disk space. Sometimes, as with Larsson, the treatment is more convincing, but still flawed. I won't bore you with the technical details, but I'll mention an example. At one point Salander hacks into someone's laptop and reconfigures it so that all its hard-disk activity is redirected to a server on the internet. The laptop's user then, hilariously, carries on, not noticing any difference. Not noticing, for example, that his machine has suddenly become a hundred times slower, or doesn't work at all if there isn't a wireless signal.

Now, I only notice stuff like this as I happen to know something about computers and software. My non-writing alter-ego, the one that actually pays the bills, is a software developer. For other readers it will be other things. My wife, for example, is a doctor of microbiology. She generally finds the treatment of computers in literarure perfectly convincing, but sees significant flaws whenever microbiology is involved. I, on the other hand, don't know enough about that subject not to find its handling perfectly believable.

And my question is, does this matter? How rigorous does research have to be? Are we, as writers, trying to create absolute technical accuracy in all areas we cover, or is it enough to just fashion an enjoyable illusion, convincing enough for most readers? It's significant, I think, that I was still engrossed by Larsson's book even while a part of my mind was spotting the technical flaws. I still wanted to read on, find out what was going to happen. I still "believed" in what I was reading.

The danger with making technical mistakes is that you might alienate some expert readers. But if what you write is believable enough for most people, does it matter that it's actually "wrong"? I tend to think not. We're trying to create art here, not produce text books. I write a lot of SF, for example, and I have no doubt that much of my work would be laughable to a physicist. But then, so would the great majority of SF. Disallow FTL space-travel and 90% of the whole genre goes away. For me, the fiction of SF is much more important than the science. That doesn't mean I don't strive for accuracy, or at least consistency, in my invented science (or in anything else). To be convincing, something has to have at least a grounding in reality. But it's the story that matters, I feel, not the adherence to the facts. Research is vital, but only as a way of convincing people your particular illusion is believable.

So, smiling to myself occasionally, I forgave Larsson and just enjoyed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And I made a mental note that believability in fiction doesn't have to mean obsessively strict research to the nth degree. It just needs to be good enough for the story. But I may be wrong about that. I should probably do some more research. What does anyone else think?

49 comments:

  1. Interesting question. I find such mistakes annoying, but not as annoying as mistakes in the media. So, I suppose I agree with you.

    Just flew in from Nicola Morgan's birthday party.

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  2. I suspect that there are lot of things which "experts" regard as "wrong" in books...you are more likely to be caught out by child if you put in an inconsistency!

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  3. how do you feel about coincidences? I couldn't post a comment on Rachel Fenton's blog because her question about what one looked for in a good book needed to be thought about first. Having spent a couple of wakeful hours last night discussing this with my self I wandered through That Elusive Line this morning and ended up with you, saying a lot of what I'd been thinking but far more coherently! Thank you! I once had to stop reading a book set in our local town because the geography was all wrong, something I'm sure I could have forgiven given stronger characters and plot.

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  4. Miriam, catdownunder and pennygj

    Thanks for stopping by. Yes, media mistakes are also annoying but I suppose they at least have the excuse of having to put reports together in a hurry.

    I agree completely about children spotting inconsistencies. And, as I know well, they immediately spot it if you just miss out a single word of a familiar story!

    As for coincidences, it is strange how that happens isn't it? I suppose it's just our brains looking for patterns but subjectively it often doesn't seem that way ...

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  5. The problem with mistakes of fact is that they interfere with my suspension of disbelief. I find myself pulled out of the story by them.

    It's impossible to be an expert in everything you write about. Can beta readers help, perhaps?

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  6. Very interesting questions raised here - I am a database manager and former programmer so yes, this kind of thing sometimes gets to me too, although I tend to notice it more in movies than in books - for instance, the 'Unix' scene in Jurassic Park always winds me up a bit.
    However I tend to think that it's more important for a book to have internal consistency than to be completely realistic in terms of technology etc.

    ps I am also visiting from Nicola Morgan's party.

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  7. Hello! Staggering in from Nicola's blog party.

    My other half is a programmer and also doesn't like computer related plot inconsistencies, whereas I don't notice them, however in another life I was a scientist working in a field very popular with certain TV dramas and novels and I can't even really bare to watch them as I know how inaccurate they are (specially when they start waving round those plastic sheets with the DNA 'barcode' on it, technology that is about 15 years out of date in a modern state of the art lab).

    I'm currently editing my first completed manuscript and the majority of it is set in Ancient Egypt and I am not an Egyptologist and I obviously can't go for a particularly realistic field research trip, so I worry a lot about accuracy, I just try and research as best as I can.

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  8. Interesting, very interesting Monsieur Simon. Have you read about the history behind 'The girl with the dragon tattoo'? How he died before he saw the series published? and that his long time partner has seen nothing of the proceeds because, as they weren't married, it has all gone to his family? She is desperate to wrest some influence back to pull back credibility for the books as she believes they have been badly translated. I think she is right.

    As for the real comment you made. I like to be wrapped up and completely believe. If there is a jolt of 'this is wrong' then the whole fantasy world judders.

    lovely blog

    xxx

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  9. I've anguished over my own research recently. I'm writing a book with a boarding school angle. I went to boarding school myself but it was a long time ago so I figured maybe I should go and pay them a visit. But I just couldn't do it. I hated that place. Five years of misery - why would I want to go back? So I asked a few pertinent questions of my neice about current practice (she is away at school and loving it) and used my emotional experience and started writing.

    And then I read Sophie Mackenzie's new book 'The Medusa Project - The setup'. Which is partly set in a boarding school and all my anxieties evaporated. I am sure she has never set foot in a boarding school and she is getting away with it. So I reckon my research is adequate.

    Found you via Nicola. Feel free to pop in at
    http://childrenswritersbookclub.wordpress.com/

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  10. Yes! I can sympathise with your wife. I am/was a geneticist, and the craze for slick forensics in books or TV shows these days supplies many opportunities for scoffing while I read/watch.

    It might be nitpicky, but often technical detail is included to add an air of authenticity to a story, so if you get it wrong, what's the point?

    (Also a blow-in from Nicola's blog)

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  11. I'm here from Nicola's blog birthday party. I haven't yet read Stieg Larsson, but my husband has, and though not a computer expert he also found the plot at time unbelievable.

    It's a difficult call between 'facts and nearly accurate facts' in fiction. I myself tend to be a little too serious about research, but then if the writing is good enough the reader will believe that pigs will fly...it's all about making the reader suspend disbelief.

    Great, thought provoking post.

    Helena xx

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  12. Just blew in from Nicola's party.

    I know v.little about computers so it was interesting to read your post. You are so right - you do risk alienating your reader who has more than a passing familiarity witht the subject. As far as Larsson is concerned - I loved the books - let's blame the translator.

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  13. fairyhedgehog,

    I'm sure you're right in that beta readers can help. But finding beta readers expert in allareas you touch on is unlikely don't you think?

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  14. Kate B,

    I knew some of that about Larsson, but not that the translation quality was disputed. I can quite see that it was the translation rather than the "editing" which needed more work.

    Many thanks for the comment.

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  15. Hi Simon -
    Another migrator from Nicola's party, and a member of Strictly Writing.
    Interesting blog - I think lack of research only matters if it's going to cause the reader to stop and pull out (however momentarily) of the story. Which I suppose gives all the more ammunition to 'know who your reader is'. I'd be absolutely terrified of writing historical fiction...
    Susiex

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  16. Jo,

    Ah, that so sounds like my experience of boarding school!

    I think if you're happy with your research, if it's enough to make the text work for you, then that's the main thing.

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  17. Sadly, yes. Unless you write very narrowly indeed.

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  18. Hi Simon

    Interesting question.

    I think that a lot depends on what sort of reader your book is pitched at. If you are expecting well-read people with good general knowledge to read your book, then you'd need to make sure your research is top notch. I also believe that kids are extremely aware of the world around them and will spot things that aren't quite realistic, even if they are not exactly sure why.

    I guess I am saying that I do expect research to be thorough and exemplary when I read. I first learned about tesseracts by reading 'A Wrinkle in Time'' as a very young child (my mum taught me to read when I was three). I've learned a lot more since from well-researched, factually accurate fiction.

    My degree is in Law, but I know - through various experiences - a great deal about medicine, midwifery, teaching - and I think that many, if not most, people are like me. People who read, anyway!

    So I am going to come down on the side of 'research is important'!

    Cat (via Nicola Morgan's blog))

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  19. Hello, Simon. The question about accuracy and research is an interesting one. I do think it matters and it's best to be as accurate as possible. It jars for me if I come across something in an otherwise believable book which I know is incorrect. But, having said that, I think 'obsessively strict research to the nth degree' can take us away from getting on with the writing itself. I suppose it's a case of deciding on the right 'balance'. No easy answers.

    (I came here via Nicola Morgan's blog-birthday party).

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  20. "...believability in fiction doesn't have to mean obsessively strict research to the nth degree. It just needs to be good enough for the story..."

    I would tend to go with that. I'm not a scientifically minded person and tend to get bored of too much detail in any form of writing. good enough for the story is good enough for me.
    Oh, and I discovered you at a birthday party.

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  21. Great post, Simon.

    Like you, I think that story trumps everything, even expert readers. Unless those experts are Beta readers, of course. Author's have to do their very best with the certain knowledge that there's always someone more knowledgeable out there. I think we should aim for credibility first, and the more elusive accuracy second. Unfortunately, published author's look like big fat targets to many experts in the throes of righteous indignation.

    Of course, ignorance cuts both ways. A writer may have done a great deal of research, and even enlisted some tame experts as checkers, eliminating 99.9% of errors in the process. But it only takes one inconsistency to slip through the net for some reader somewhere to harrumph about 'lack of research.'

    Add to this the subjective nature of some knowledge, inconsistency between authorities, and the expectations of some readers (especially child readers) which might not be consistent with accuracy. For example, most pirates were murdering scumbags, but 12-year-olds find it hard not to see them as heroes. A tricky plank to walk, that one, and which would we prefer, a sad letter from a disappointed child, or an angry letter from an expert in Bristol?

    Anyway, I'm glad you let Larsson get away with fudging the facts to serve the story. These books are on my list, but there's so much on my list. I look forward to getting round to them.

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  22. Oops! Grocers apostrophe alert! Please don't write to me about it:)

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  23. Hi Simon - excellent and interesting point / wondering. Any time I'm touching on a subject in one of my novels where there's a clear area of expertise which I don't have, I will seek out an expert and send them the relevant bits to read, if I can ask that favour, (people are usually flattered to be asked!) or at least I will do everything possible to check. I agree, if something's not right, it jars, and even if that jarring is only for some select experts, I think that's important.

    One area where it's less clear is in dialogue, whether dialogue in hist fic or eg teenage dialogue. Because when we write exactly how people speak, it can be VERY jarring because we're having to process accent and voice and meaning and a different tone from our own voice. So in those circs i recommend creating a kind of stylized language, something with little tags that show who's speaking and where/when we are, but not trying to imitate precisely.

    Also, in hist fic, it's perfectly acceptable to change certain aspects of history or fact. And in sci-fi we are expected to make things up, but they must work and be consistent, otherwise disbelief is not suspended. Sometimes, the actual truth jars, too, and we have to get round that! After all, some things have actually happened but wouldn't work in fiction. Truth being stranger than fact!

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  24. Hello Simon. I like your blog. (I'm another one who's here via Nicola.) My take is that a work of fiction is one big lie anyway, so we shouldn't get too hung up on getting the facts 100% right - but good liars do use truth judiciously to make their lies more believable. I think we're just trying to do enough not to get caught out!

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  25. I think we're just trying to do enough not to get caught out!

    That sums it up nicely for me, JaneF!

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  26. I have the same problem when reading about music industry professionals or urban musicians in a novel. Too much trying to sound hip and now and not enough real insight into how it all works.
    I had some 'science' in my first book, radio waves and magnets, with only the most tenuous grasp of how that works, but it was a fantasy and I think I squeaked by.
    Interesting post, Simon.

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  27. Just dropping in from Nicola Morgan's. Interesting post. Ever noticed that any time you read an article in the paper on a subject that you know a bit about, it tends to be wrong? Now extrapolate :)

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  28. Thanks to everyone who has commented. Some fascinating viewpoints and I've discovered some wonderful new blogs to follow too!


    Helena,
    I think you've summed it up very nicely : "it's all about making the reader suspend disbelief".

    Michael,
    Yes, in hindsight, I've decided to blame the translator. Either I need to learn Swedish, or we need a new version!

    Susie,
    You make an excellent point about needing to know who your readership is.

    Catherine,
    I do agree that research is important - I'm certainly not saying it isn't. Just that there comes a point when a story works despite a few slip-ups, as the Larsson did for me.

    Jean and Nora,
    I think we're more or less in agreement!

    Thomas,
    Sounds like we're going to agree on these matters. Give me the letter from Bristol any day!

    JaneF and Nicola,
    I suppose it does depend on the type of book to a degree? If it's an historical novel, then research is going to be a lot more important than a contemporary novel. I recall an interview with Hanif Kureishi in which he said he doesn't do any research - because he sees living his life as all the research he needs.

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  29. Jo,

    I'm the same with pop/rock music. I cringe whenever a "serious" journailsit or broadcaster tries to discuss it.

    Certainly writing fantasy is one good approach! If you einvent the whole world no-one can say you got something wrong!

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  30. Jonathan,

    Absolutely, I notice that all the time. I just hope that the other stuff I read in the papers - the politics let's say - is more accurately represented!

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  31. This is an issue I struggle with all the time as I have yet to write anything that doesn't require tons of research. I should have resolved this year: I shall write no stories that require tons of research. :shakes head at self:

    When I wrote "In This Wood," the novel I'm revising now, it dealt heavily with wordworking. So I gave it to a local woodworker when I was all done (this after heavy research) and asked him to see if I blew it. I had--but only twice. :breathed sigh of relief: I noted to myself where to edit and they are a part of my current revisions.

    Right now, I'm working on my first piece ever of historical fiction. Now, I know I'm really nuts. Teacups, real china, and another country in another time. All of which, I know nothing about.

    I'm tempted to find someone that knows ALL about them to read the story when I'm done, but for now, I must stick to research and hope for the best. Your last paragraph gives me even more hope. Thanks for the post.

    Another flying in from Nicola's blog party, but I'll be sticking around and bookmarking this blog. I like it. :grins:

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  32. Hi
    Just skipped across from Nicola Morgan's Blog Party.

    The point you've raised is an interesting one. So frequently I read hints and tips from established authors to beginners like me and they say: write what you know, if you can't then research well.

    But how much? and how much is too much? and how much is too little?

    I would have to agree that while reading, if I come across something that doesn't ring true or is so blatantly wrong then it immediately stops me in my tracks and I can't continue with the story.

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  33. Greetings, good sir. Have you found also that the writing blogosphere is woefully deficient in Y chromosomes? I'm happy to find a fellow fellow.

    As for the research issue, I think you've the right of it. As long as we can make the characters and the situations interesting enough, an occasional lapse in verisimilitude can be forgiven, especially when the subjects are esoteric and science-heavy. Plenty of people forgive Dan Brown his utter lack of believability, no?

    Oh, and I found you via Nicola's puff-party. Great fun, that.

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  34. Anyone else wince when novelists try to write news headlines or newspaper stories? I do, because I work part time as a journalist...

    Great topic!

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  35. Simon, found you from Nicola's party, and I love this topic, as I agonize over it all the time. I too know something about computers, so that would bug me. I just finished a Patricia Cornwall novel and it amazes me that she goes into so much detail on autopsies and forensic medicine. I think writers who have a depth of expertise in some area (whether it's medicine, law, science, computers, etc.) have an advantage when they leverage that in their novels. And being a bit anal (us computer people usually are) I worry about this for my own writing.

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  36. Megan,

    Delighted you'll be dropping by! Love the blog too - some great advice.

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  37. Katie,

    Yes, "write what you know" - I've really never been clear how that works for an SF/fantasy author!

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  38. Simon,

    Splendid to make your acquaintance too. And I see what you mean as regards Y chromosomes.

    You're right about Dan Brown. If you can, stop analysing and just enjoy the ride say I!

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  39. Colette,

    Hmm, so maybe I should write a thriller based around a disgruntled computer programmer ...

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  40. Simon -- you should! definitely!

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  41. found you on the Nicola party post.

    I agree that research should be pretty darn convincing in order for me to suspend my disbelief.

    In my first novel that I am working on I keep a good road atlas at hand to make sure my geographical references are very accurate. I have been researching car models to make sure I am in the right year. And I even been researching weather data to make sure my descripitions of the days are pretty close to what they would have been in the historical context of my story.

    Don't distract my focus on the story I'm reading with a fact that causes me to stop and question.

    Lee
    http://tossingitout.blogspot.com/

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  42. Great post, Simon! :) Wandering over from Nicola's as well.

    My husband is my great anachornism finder (I write fantasy and try very hard not to screw up my medieval world.)

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  43. Arlee,

    It can be kind of fun, too. The internet is invaluable of course. I've used Google Street View, for example, to check that certain roads are as I remember them. I'm sure there's also scope for deliberate anachronisms as a plot point - perhaps in a time travelling or a virtual reality caper ...

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  44. Rebecca,

    Oh, I know you're a fantasy writer as I read your blog! Many thanks for the follow on mine.

    Simon.

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  45. Hi Simon. I am here due to Nicola's fab birthday bash. You are my 4th blog to comment on and I must say I love the points you bring up about research. I'll be following you and visiting many other new friends. Visit me when you can. All are welcome.

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  46. Yes, Simon, but the magic stuff still has to make sense. There are rules and procedures, otherwise it's just deus ex machina, right?
    My husband is techie so I ran the radio waves past him. It was fanciful but based in sound science (although I didn't know it when I wrote it). And the magic overlapping bits had their own structure. In fact much of the plot was to do with irregular use of spells.
    I have since become more serious about my research and often read several books for backstory information which barely makes it into the manuscript but at least I know I've gotten it 'right'.

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  47. Debra,

    Many thanks for the comments. I'll be over to your blog for a look too!

    Simon.

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  48. Jo,

    Absolutely, I'm not saying don't research, I'm just observing that you can get things wrong and still end up with a great book.

    Certainly magic, for example, has to follow some rules : in a sense you have to research it by inventing the rules for its operation in a fantasy novel.

    Your point about background research giving you confidence to write about something, even though you don't explicitly use what you've learned, is a good one, I think.

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  49. Some mistakes doesn't matter if the story is so compelling you coose to overlook them

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I'd love to know what you think.