Last year I had a chance to read a series of urban fantasy novels set in Ireland. I did it partially by my friend’s recommendation, and also as a part of my own comparative research for the novel set in Dublin I’ve been working on. And even though I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the story, reading each chapter of these books made me die inside a little.I’m not a native Irish person, and I’m conscious that even though I’ve spent over 8 years in Dublin, I’ve missed a lot of Irish culture and history, but reading that series made me at the same time realize how many experiences I’ve gathered throughout these years. And, what I think is even more important, how much aware I’ve become of the things I don’t know.
While I’ve read the series, these thoughts kept coming back as the author didn’t seem to have bothered with much of research and fact-checking. I’ve read of Dublin consisting simply of “Temple Bar” (which was described as full of tourists… and it could have be so much more) and the nearby “Trinity College” which the main character visited on occasion and which wasn’t really described at all, plus some generic locations without any flavor. I’ve also read about fast cars reaching high speed within seconds in Dublin center – a place I’ve frequented over the years – on the almost-always jammed streets of Dublin, with their multiple traffic lights and epic potholes that the writer didn’t seem to know about. And then I screamed inside of my head when a native Dubliner in the book named Patrick was called “Patty” by his equally native coworker (for those who don’t know, “Patty” might be used for Patricia, but Patrick will be called “Paddy” – from the Irish version of the name, Padraig). This one thing alone made the book so American (especially that “Paddy’s Day” – St. Patrick’s Day is called “Patty’s Day” in US), I was ready to believe the story didn’t take place in Dublin, Ireland, but in Dublin, Somewhere-in-United-States.
As a reader, I felt let down by the multiple proofs of no research at all. It wasn’t even the case of different perception of the same city (someone might love Paris and call it romantic, while another person will claim it’s crowded and full of arrogant people), because even different opinions can ring together in recognition of places, cultural quirks, and other things people experience in the same place.
It’s not only the case of these particular novels. I remember my Italian friend complaining about a novel set in Italy where the characters went to the church at night. “In Italy, churches are closed for the night!” she exclaimed. I also passed on books set in Japan I’ve been eager to read when I saw what’s been done to the Japanese language in the series. I might have not spoken my Japanese for nearly a decade, so my expertise in it is pretty much gone, but I still remember phrases, expressions, and basic grammar rules – it’s probably even less than what a devoted anime fan knows, so to know the author didn’t even bother with that little made me scared of what else would be wrong in the books, killing my experience.
I don’t even have to mention how fearful I am about reading anything set in Poland…
It doesn’t mean I think writers should only write what they know or should only write about the countries they’ve lived in for a while. But I do believe they should strive for authenticity, by doing research, visiting places if possible or asking other people for their impressions and experiences. This way, even though they might not create the setting that every reader will relate to as being the reflection of their own experiences, they will create something that all the readers will recognize as “real”. They will also know what aspects of the setting can be altered (especially for fantasy and science-fiction settings that often require additional elements) without affecting the authenticity I’ve mentioned.
It’s tough, but it can be done well. Some years ago I’ve read a novel by an American writer set in Russia, in the Soviet times. Because of the entwined histories of Russia and Poland, I have a quite clear idea (and my mother’s accounts to support it) what it was like there back then, and even though the author’s vision didn’t exactly match mine, I recognized enough of the setting to see it as authentic – just not matching my own perspective.
I believe it’s going to be a long time before I dare to read another novel set in Ireland that wasn’t written by someone who knows the country, but I hope that one day all the writers will do their homework and I’ll be stunned by their portrayal of the places I know well – or think I know well – and discover new takes and perspectives I haven’t experienced myself.
How about you? Does obvious lack of research spoil your reading pleasure? Or maybe to you the story is more important than authenticity?
Joanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science fiction author who enjoys all things SFF: books, movies, and video games.
Her short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies in Polish and in English.
Her epic fantasy adventure series, starting with By the Pact, is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.