Everyone has to do research from time to time. When one reader exclaimed of my early sprawling draft, set in the 1930s and ‘40s: “You sure know a lot about a lot!” I did not take it as a compliment. I knew my research was showing. Often, research shows when you are not at the heart of fictional truth. At best, research and the details/nuance it imparts can be an integral part of your story. At worst, it is a diversion that prevents a narrative from building character arcs, viable conflict, and depth.
Spending time in research mode is also time away from writing, so having a plan can be helpful. Learning too much, and getting sidetracked by that knowledge, can be time consuming and overwhelming. Trial and error is necessary to find that fine line between too much and too little. In the very beginning, you may not even know what you are searching for.
Some tips for the research process (all of which I’ve learned the hard way):
- In the beginning research widely, generally and deeply. Go to the library. Find opposing views and accounts. Read widely on your subject, and vary your sources. Be creative and don’t forget real live people, whether in written diaries or current interviews. Visit real places. Watch documentaries and films. Think of this as the scaffolding of your book: invisible but necessary.
- Start thinking as early as possible in terms of story and character. It will necessarily narrow your scope.
- Keep your time spent using the Internet under control. There are apps that can help (I use one called Freedom). Recently, I did not follow my own advice and spent hours sidetracked by the history of birth control (that Margaret Sanger!). Use placeholders for smaller fact checks, and do them all at once.
- Read this article: Does Fiction Based on Fact Have a Responsibility to the Truth? in the Bookends column of the New York Times. Ayana Mathis and Thomas Mallon discuss: “Can you get to the truth through a particular lie?” among other conundrums.
- Do not try to synthesize every last detail you have learned into your narrative. This will show.
- Try doing research during off-writing hours.
- Be willing to cut scenes and descriptions, even if meticulously researched, if they do not serve your story.
- Know that a lot of your research will never make it into your book. In order to understand the 1930s and 1940s, I read widely about WW1 and the 1920s. Take heart in your scaffolding. The stronger it is, the more believable and deep your book will be.
- Remember, in the end, that fiction generates truth independent of fact. The world you create within your book has its own rules. You get to make them. You get to decide how close you would like to hew to facts. Or not. Think about balance and consistency within your narrative.
- Too much research can kill your sense of imaginative freedom. It can suffocate. It can make you feel inadequate, like you’ll never know enough. It can stifle and overwhelm. However:
- The right amount of research can ignite your sense of possibility. It can introduce you to cultures, histories and people you never knew existed, launch plots and themes, and open up conflicts and subplots.
- One poignant detail about an event or object can ground a scene, create a sense of depth, and give your reader something delightful to discover.
What is fiction other than the world, with all its facts and histories and absurd accumulations of event, people, cultures – current, past or alternate universe – seen specifically from a writer’s own two eyes? As working writers we are doing research every single day.