Recently I got a comment on my blog that made me feel kind of bad. It went like this: “I am reading [book title]. On page xxx, [character name] ‘threw a grape to [the dog]’. Sadly, grapes are extremely toxic to dogs – please research your material and do not promote harmful actions.”
The commenter brings up two questions: How much research is enough, and should I be concerned that my books “promote” harmful actions?
First, the research. Truly, I did not know that grapes are toxic to some dogs (they are, I checked). I would not have knowingly included in my book a hero or heroine doing something that could potentially harm a dog, and I regret that it happened. Apparently the half-dozen people who read this book before publication did not know about the grape-dog thing, either, because no one caught it. People feed grapes to dogs. I had a dog, and I fed her grapes, and she didn’t get sick or die from them. That was as much accuracy as I felt I needed at the time. (And please understand, I am not dissing the person who made the comment, it was obviously something she felt strongly about. Maybe she had even lost a dog to grape toxins, and I did thank her for setting me straight.)
But this incident got me thinking: How much research is enough? Just yesterday I finally found my box of research books related to death, murder and police procedure. I have at least 20, probably more. (The box had been lost in my garage after a move.) I won’t claim that everything I write about murder investigation is 100 percent accurate; I fudge here and there for dramatic effect because I am writing romantic fiction, not true-crime books. And though I do my best, I might get some things wrong. But how much should I research?
In any given book, I have characters in a dozen or more settings, engaging in all kinds of activities. If I show a minor character in the background polishing silver, am I obliged to find out the safest methods, and should I mention that she is wearing rubber gloves and eye protection? If the polishing of silver was integral to the plot–if it had something to do with solving the mystery–then yes, I would research it. But, frankly, if it’s just a throw-away line (like the grape-dog line was in my book) I’m not going to stop and read everything about it, just to make sure I get it one-hundred percent right, not to mention one-hundred-percent safe.
But let’s just say I am really good at research, and I always know everything about everything. Does that mean my characters have to know everything, too? Does the fact that my hero takes a particular action in a book mean that I am “promoting” that behavior? Sometimes my characters exceed the speed limit. Am I promoting fast driving? My characters also have sex. Lots of premarital sex. They even have unplanned pregnancies. Does that mean I promote such behavior, or even condone it? They drink alcohol and sometimes eat very fattening food. A lot more people die of heart disease than dogs die of grape toxicity. Should I only write about characters who eat salads and get their daily thirty minutes of exercise?
Should our heroes and heroines maintain a certain level of “goodness”? (I had an editor nix a book once because the hero was trying to quit smoking. She just couldn’t accept a hero who smoked. That’s her choice and her right as an editor, but should it also be mine as an author?)
Maybe I’m just feeling defensive about my mistake. Maybe I’m trying to justify myself. But I think novelists are here primarily to entertain, not set standards of behavior or present fiction as fact. I’m really just curious to know how other writers and readers feel. How much responsibility do we, as writers, have to get every little fact right, and to “promote” positive behavior with our books?
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