“I’ve done my research” is a phrase I occasionally see from writers when readers question their facts, their interpretation of the fact, or their handling of sensitive topics (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.). Other writers seem to take the same tone, even if they don’t use the words. They’ve done the necessary research on mixed-race marriages in the 1920s/the Black Panther Party/the gay-rights Mattachine Society/the Asian-American immigrant experience; if they’ve got it wrong, they’re not at fault.
It makes researching your topic sounds like prep for a certification exam. To take the HVAC licensing exam you need X hours of classroom work, X hours of hands-on experience; to write about the Other, you need X hours of reading relevant books, then nobody can question your qualifications.
I will pause here and note that as I’m not a telepath — or “human telegraph” as they’re called in Questionable Minds — I may be misinterpreting some or all the people who say things like this. Fortunately I think my point is sound even if I am: researching a topic is important, but it doesn’t mean your understanding of black activism in the 1960s or military life in WW II can’t be questioned. Can’t be wrong. But we can. If I misinterpreted some reference material in Undead Sexist Cliches or I didn’t do enough research to catch that the theorist I cite has been disproven, the fault lies with me, not my sources (for the record, I don’t think that’s the case).
Research is important in nonfiction, and often in fiction. As I’ve previously written, I did plenty of research for Questionable Minds. That doesn’t make me error-proof. It can be something as simple as mistyping a date and not catching it, misremembering what I read or misinterpreting material I read. Even if my work is perfectly accurate, my portrayal of Victorian England or the five women slain by Jack the Ripper could wind up being pro-imperialist (I don’t think it does) or treating them as faceless, unimportant victims, the “nameless drabs of Robert Bloch’s Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper.I bring up Jack’s victims because I’d probably have written them differently if I’d read Hallie Rubenhold’s THE FIVE: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper. Rubenhold argues that what we think we know about the five is mostly printed legend: there’s no hard evidence any of them except Mary Kelly was a sex worker. Her view is that the press and police made snap judgments about these lower-class women and later writers parroted them as gospel. Rubenhold also suggests that the reason they didn’t fight back is that like lots of working class folks in London, when they had nowhere to sleep they slept on the streets. Jack gutted them before they knew he was there.
Of course I wouldn’t have used that last part, as Jack’s ability to mind-control his victims is a big part of the plot. But Rubenhold has done yeoman work detailing the women’s family history, love lives, and the hard luck that led to them ending up in White Chapel late in 1888 (“luck” including alcohol, pregnancy and disease). She’s also very good on the plight of the unemployed working class and the various efforts to help them. Some of her conclusions are too speculative to convince me — she stops short of concluding Mary Kelly was really killed by sex traffickers, but strongly hints at it — but overall it’s an excellent book.
When I wrote Questionable Minds, The Five didn’t exist. When I rewrote it recently, I hadn’t heard of it. And I don’t have the time now to do a last-minute rewrite. While I’ve worked to give the victims some personality, it isn’t as true to the facts as I thought, mostly because I didn’t know how many facts were available.
I still think the book is worth publishing. And reading. And I’ll take whatever criticism comes my way.
#SFWApro. Undead Sexist Cliches cover by Ted Ward, Questionable Minds cover by Samantha Collins.