We have all heard of Harry Potter fanfics in which characters stress about medical bills, despite the UK having universal free healthcare or about fics set in the early 90s in which everyone has smart phones and internet access.
While some people simply don’t want to do any research, there are also many who simply don’t realize they need to do any despite writing fanfics set in another country, time period, or professional setting that they are not familiar with. Of course there’s a solution for this, which every novel writing website and guide to writing fanfiction will throw at you: “Do your research!”
But doing a lot of research isn’t always a good thing. It can lead to hours of procrastination on the internet or it can lead to anxiety because what you find out from reading a couple of Wikipedia articles is that you actually know even less than you thought and that to really understand everything fully you would need to complete a degree in the topic! So you can’t possibly write that 5000 word high school Steve/Bucky fanfic you wanted to write, because what do you know about depression era schooling in early 20th century Brooklyn? If you write that fanfic, you’ll be laughed at!
Therefore, many fanfic writers will give up writing such fics in favor of writing yet another coffee shop AU, because at least that’s something they know about and so no one can accuse them of getting the details wrong.
The sad part is that worries about being made fun of for getting the facts wrong are not unwarranted. I count myself among the many people who cannot stand to read fanfics in which I find glaring factual errors. Many people are also very vocal about such errors, especially as it has (luckily) become increasingly frowned upon to laugh at fanfic authors for other reasons. It’s probably time we stop having a go at authors who get their facts wrong though. Unless we only want to read coffee shop AUs for the rest of eternity.
So then, how much research is necessary for a fanfic?
If you find yourself struggling to be inspired, then research will help you, because you might find a story to tell that no one else in your fandom has told before. If you are going to write in a time period, country, or for a profession that you are unfamiliar with, then some research is a good idea. Even if you think you know everything, just a bit of research may help you discover some new aspects to the story you hadn’t considered before. While this is sounding a lot like: “Yay, do all the research!!!”, what I’m really saying is that a little research can go a long way.
Conversely, a lot of research (and by that I mean more than a couple of hours, like when you start furiously Googling the most common color of tablecloths in early 19th century Japan) can stop you from writing your fic. It’s easily possible to spend more time doing research than actually writing. Which, if you’re enjoying the research, then all the power to you! But if you aren’t enjoying it, or you’re only doing it to procrastinate, or you’re really dreading the thought of doing research, or you’re only doing the research because you are scared of writing something that isn’t factually correct, then there’s a problem.
It doesn’t actually matter if you get the color of the tablecloth wrong. Details like that are not crucial to the story. If have a lot of details to throw into a story, that’s great! It can really enhance a story. But if you don’t know much then a very quick Google search on the topic in general should give you enough details to throw in if and when appropriate. But if you put too much effort into researching little details you may find it very hard to restrain yourself from showing off all that hard work and overloading your fanfic with said details.
Now, if a crucial plot point hinges on a specific fact like antibiotics being available, that’s when you should do a quick Google search to check whether antibiotics were available in 1914 or not. That’s something you can quickly check and once you’ve checked it, you can get on with writing.
If you’re so worried about facts that you avoid writing anything outside of your comfort zone, then it may be best to contact others in the fandom and ask if anyone is willing to beta the fic and check for factual errors. Having handed over the burden of fact-checking to someone else who knows what they’re talking about (Maybe they’re from that country or a part of the group of people you’re writing about or maybe because they’re a history nerd) you can finally concentrate on the fun stuff and write that fanfic! If you’re worried that your very premise might come undone with fact checking, you can always ask your beta if the premise sounds okay before you start writing.
To conclude, do an hour or two’s research on the topic, and if you’re worried, get a beta reader. Have fun and enjoy writing whatever it is you want to write, because you don’t only have to write what you know, you can also write what you don’t know.