Research Matters: Why I Don’t Read Novels Set in Ireland

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

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.

This Post Has 20 Comments

  1. sjhigbee

    Oh, I’m with you:). I HATE it when I read books set in places I know by someone who clearly hasn’t a clue exactly what it’s like on the ground.

    1. melfka

      YES! It also makes me appreciative of the authors who actually do their homework.

  2. Agnieszka Hałas

    Unfortunately, some writers are lazy when it comes to research. I hate that too! On the other hand, as you say, two people can perceive the same place or environment in radically differing ways. I think a foreign visitor’s impressions from my hometown would be very different from my own.

    If you want to get really, REALLY angry, read “The Silver Sword”. That book is blatantly wrong in so many ways I can’t even begin to list them (e.g. the author apparently never heard about the Warsaw Uprising), yet it’s a bestselling classic of children’s literature.

    1. Agnieszka Hałas

      OK… I’ve dug around a bit (I don’t own a copy of Ian Serraillier’s book; I read it many years ago), and it looks like I might have to eat my words; according to reviews, there might be a mention of the Warsaw Uprising in there after all (I was under the impression that Warsaw just gets destroyed by bombing), but in general, the book paints a disturbingly inaccurate picture of World War II in Poland and its aftermath in Germany. I know a historically accurate version wouldn’t be fit for a children’s book, but still…!

    2. melfka

      I have no problem with perspectives: even if I react “do they really see this house/square/whatever as pretty/dirty/ruined?”, at least I can recognize the authentic feeling.
      I love Dublin but I still perceive it as dirty (so much trash) and a bit, let’s say, unkempt, while my mom considers it “beautiful and interesting”. 🙂
      As for the book – I think I’ll pass. I don’t need another level of frustration ;). But thanks for the warning!

  3. J.R.Bee

    I don’t mind if it’s little things that a non local just wouldn’t know, but blatant easy to research stuff bugs me.

    1. melfka

      I agree, I don’t mind a slip here or there, though there are books to remedy them.
      For example, one of the most known monuments in Dublin: The Monument of Light/The Spire of Dublin doesn’t even appear in the book (and it’s the most common meeting place for people). I’ve only recently learned that the Spire (as the locals call it) has a nickname “stiffy in/at/on the Liffey” – I could understand the writer not knowing it either. But to entirely miss the Spire’s existence? *grumbles*

      1. J.R.Bee

        I can kinda sorta forgive, although thinking about it makes me cringe internally, the Patty ref. If you think you already know a thing you’re not likely to research it.

        1. melfka

          Sad, isn’t it? Me knowing “a thing” about Ireland just makes me think about how much I DON’T know.

          1. J.R.Bee

            Knowledge is a dangerous thing, you know the thing, but you only ever know your side of it.

            That’s my fortune cookie wisdom for the year 😀

          2. melfka

            As Inq always says “be aware of your ignorance”. Though I disagree, part of the learning and broadening perspective is learning someone else’s side too: and learning how our own experience might have filtered it.

          3. J.R.Bee

            True, but it’s hard to know how much you don’t know, until you know a bit more that you didn’t know before 😀

          4. melfka

            But you know how much you know, and it’s reasonable to assume there’s much more to learn. 😉

          5. J.R.Bee

            Oh there’s always more 😀

  4. Hibah Shabkhez

    I can totally empathise with this … I come from Pakistan, and the way some writers butcher it (especially in modern thrillers) makes me wonder if they have ever learnt to use Google search.

    1. melfka

      Thank you for stopping by, Hibah.
      And I can only imagine how frustrated you get. I don’t know much about Pakistan, so if I ever was to write about it, I’d ask my friend for directions on where to begin – she knows a lot about the region. I also have a Pakistani acquaintance, and – as you say – there’s always Google.
      It’s hard to believe that in the times of easy access people still don’t bother with research.

  5. debscarey

    A difference in perspective is fine, but getting the facts wrong – no, no, no. The saying that the devil is in the detail didn’t just spring from nothing after all. I read a book (can’t remember the name now) where the reveal relied on the hero catching the last flight off a scottish island after a dinner party. Except that there aren’t any scheduled flights at night. Indeed, you have to find a pilot willing to bend the rules to fly you off at that time (I know, I had to figure out how to get a colleague off at night if his wife went into labour) and it ruined the whole book for me.

    1. melfka

      Agreed. Those little things can be very important for “authenticity”. I don’t mind bending the reality or facts a bit, but the obvious lack of research is a killer.
      I could swallow the criminals in the novel I mentioned having access to a lot of guns… but for them to be openly “packing” (as the author had put it) in the country that has a total ban on guns? Ummm, no.
      It almost makes me think we should make a list of “the things authors get wrong about [insert a place here]” and gather all the information for writers to have a place to learn from.

  6. Clara Bush

    Another great blog with insight into developing better writing skills. Research is a key. Unless, of course, someone wishes to use alternative facts.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.