Research: Known and Unknown

In a post on Wicked Cozy Authors,  James Ziskin discusses research and being alert for what you don’t know. We may think we know/remember details, but we can be wrong, so check it out. Which got me thinking of a classification I’ve seen in business advice articles, dividing challenges into known knowns, known unknowns, unknown knowns and unknown unknowns.

Known knowns are the stuff we know, and we’re confident in our knowledge. I know a shit-ton about comics from the Silver and Bronze Age (and quite a bit about the 1980s) and quite a lot about movies. I also have known unknowns in these areas, gaps in my knowledge I’m fully aware of. My knowledge of comics for the past decade is considerably weaker; if a list of comics published in 2015 were important to a story, I know I need to go research it.

Unknown knowns is stuff we could know but we don’t realize it. In business, this is the stuff your team knows but you didn’t check with them, or the things you could look up in the relevant wiki … only you didn’t. I don’t know it’s as much of an issue when we’re working on our fiction, by ourselves.

Unknown knowns is where we can really get stuck, because that’s the stuff we don’t know we don’t know. For example, we remember X clearly, but it’s actually Y. We assume we know how CSI or high-tech security works because we’ve seen it on TV. We assume that it’s perfectly normal for an average fiftysomething man to date a twentysomething beauty because we see that pairing in movies. Or we simply assume our personal experience and worldview is typical of everyone. I have some examples here.

The best solution? As Ziskin says, check out everything. Question our assumptions. Be conscious even experts and professionals may be wrong. Historical novelist Gary Jennings, for instance, mentioned in an article that when working on a novel about a 19th century circus, he’d talked to a trapeze artist who had no idea how different his line of work had been back then.

We may still fall into error, but at least we can reduce it to a livable level.


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