Researching Enhancements or Encumbrances?


A few years ago there was a storm of controversy surrounding the novel “The DaVinci Code” by Dan Brown. Most vocal of those with issues about this book was the Roman Catholic Church as represented by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Previously known as the “Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition”, this sub culture of the church has been around for a long time. Better known as the Holy Inquisition, the organization has, in former times, been responsible for the torture and murder of many free thinking church members of which Galileo, the Knights Templar, Joan of Arc (later sainted in 1920), and most if not all of the Jewish population of Spain and Portugal. It lasted for about 500 years and tried, beat, and killed thousands of people.

Pope John Paul II in 1988 defined the responsibilities as such: "The proper duty of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is to promote and safeguard the doctrine on faith and morals in the whole Catholic world; so it has competence in things that touch this matter in any way.” So it is a simple ideal that they would have problems with any book that messes with historic convention.

The author, Dan Brown, when queried about the books historical accusations simply stated “The Da Vinci Code is a novel and therefore a work of fiction.”

I thought it was a rousing good read loaded with action, mystery, and suspense in same way his other novels have been. What is true and not true in a work of fiction is in the eye of the beholder. Caveat Emptor! Not everyone picking up this or any book is going to readily accept that it was and is a work of fiction, especially when the work describes alternate explanations to that which is considered sacred. People, and especially the people in Vatican City, do not like it when you mess with God.

So where does that take us in a conversation about research. As the title of this piece suggests (well, asks really) is that research is tricky in effect. Will it enhance the story, or encumber it?

I like to read historical fiction and that genre is dependent on a certain amount of research. Getting dates and famous people into a novel is necessary to set a foundation for the story. From that point, I am looking for the story. I usually know the history, being a history buff and former middle and high school history teacher. What historical fiction does for me is put a face(s) to the events. I remember reading Mary Stewart’s Arthurian and Merlin books and, while I certainly did not hold the author’s feet the fire about relevance and fact, enjoyed it from the point of view that it offered an explanation”of the myths and fables that have stood the test of time.

There is a reason that Arthurian literature still exists. It is, in some way, founded in fact. What those facts might be have been diluted over the last fifteen hundred years. There is generally no proof of a king named Arthur, but it is universally accepted that there was a king or leader of some sort which the legend grew. Did this matter when I read the books, and the subsequent other attempts to tell the story (including the SyFy channels “Merlin”)? Not one bit. I have read enough to know that all myths start out as truths. Where I separate fact from fiction is completely my choice.

Ancient cultures all had storytellers that passed traditions from one generation to the next, and I think that fiction writing might be the modern evolution to the Bards, and Seanchaí. In this reality there is much room for a writer. The amount of research needed for a book depends on the book. A sweeping generational historical novel(s) might require many hours in the library or on-line, while a simple detective novel would take less.

I envy fantasy writers because, although I am sure they do a decent amount of research for the books they right, it is not absolutely necessary. They get to make up the myths and legends of the worlds they create. Yes, they probably lend from different genres, Historical Fiction and Non-fiction, Science Fiction, and even some of the more recognizable classic such as Dracula, Frankenstein or the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but there work is not generally questioned in that, being in the fantasy genre, people know that it is made up prose.

So what is there to do? Enhance or encumber? I think that the writer needs to take a hard look at what the piece is, and what is required to get it out in print. I reiterate Caveat Emptor. Lest you find yourself in the hands of a modern dayTorquemada

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