How to Research Your Novel or Fractured Story
This blog post is at the request of my friend Julie Bonsack, who asked for a “top ten” list for researching fiction.
Research is not only one of the biggest perks of fiction writing, it’s one of its most distracting elements.
Here are tips that I have learned from researching The Flower Wars, working on other stories, and slaving in the salt mines as a freelance writer for science and technology publications.
At the heart of all of these tips is one key idea:
1. The story is the boss.
Once you know that much, the rest becomes intuitive.
2. Plausibility, not accuracy, should be your goal. Look, readers are coming to your fiction to willingly suspend disbelief and be told a story, so don’t get bogged down in historical or technical accuracy. You want something to be believable within the context of your story world. So, if you are writing a story where there is an erupting volcano, yes, you’ll need to do some research on volcanoes to make sure you have created a plausible scenario. Use enough scientific accuracy to eliminate the possibility for widespread eye-rolling and call it a day.
But if your readers really want to learn about pyroclastic flow—and they probably don’t—they can look it up in Physical Geology: Exploring the Earth. Accuracy is the much more tedious job of the writers whose work you will use to conduct research for your fun fiction project, and it is important only to the extent that it adds credibility to your story and keeps readers with a decent level of knowledge from being distracted by thinking, “Oh, that’s dumb, that could never happen.” The story is the boss, so that’s what needs to capture and hold the reader’s attention.
One of the critical turning points in my writing career happened in 2013 while having dinner with a friend who works in Hollywood. I confessed to wanting to write about things outside of my personal experience, but feeling somehow underqualified and, not to put too fine a point on my psychology, unauthorized. And my friend just dips a chip in the salsa, shrugs, and goes, “So? Great literature is full of anachronisms.”
I was liberated by that statement, both by the words said and the nonchalance with which they were delivered. Chomping on chips, he began to rattle off a number of examples, but I was still sitting there blinking from the first statement.
3. There’s no right time to research. It is OK to start writing before you research and continue writing while researching. This is the tip that I think is most biased by my personality and my comfort level with the messiness of my own creative process, so it may not work for everyone, and hey, it may not work for me on a future story. But I think that to honor the story—because the story is the boss—it’s important to build up the story structure prior to getting involved with the details of research.
As a person who values science, I’m sensitive to the fact that this may not be admirable to the PhDs of the world. But again, the story is the boss, and we are not writing a paper for JAMA here. Plus, writing a story is much harder, at least for me, than researching. So I prefer to focus on story and flesh out details as needed.
4. Psst…research for your novel or fractured story is fun! Research is a lot more fun than you would think it is if the last time you did research was for an assignment in school.
Here’s what research for writing fiction means: it means you get to read exactly what you’re interested in, and only that much, and it’s going to be directly applicable to something you’re trying to do, so it’s way easier to focus on than most of the other non-fiction you read. So let’s continue with your volcano analogy: you need a grasp of the basics in your geology book. But if you’re setting your story in the aftermath of Mt. St. Helens, once you know what pyroclastic flow is and how deadly it can be, you can stop researching and go straight to writing about your character’s roof caving in under the weight of ash.
Give in to your ADHD tendencies and jump around freely on Wikipedia or the book you’ve checked out from the library, because you only need what your story is calling for. Why? Because the story is the boss.
5. Use free resources. The library is a great start! I honestly know my library card number by heart. I search for books on a regular basis and I request them through ILL when I can’t find them at the library. I had a book on the Aztec empire out for over a year while I was working on The Flower Wars.
Sometimes, if a book you want isn’t available, but is deemed valuable enough, the library will buy it at your request and add it to the collection.
6. Ask experts. Interviewing people is fun [future post to come]. When else do you get to sample other people’s fascinating, exciting lives? Under what other pretext than “I’m doing some research for a novel” do you get the attention of really interesting, accomplished people with whom you may have no prior connection, and get them to talk to you for an hour or so?
The first time I ever did this was pretty inelegant, so let me spare you the awkwardness I experienced: in 2003 or so, I was researching a short story that wound up getting a kind rejection from Story Quarterly. The story was about a Jesus-like character who designed and hand-crafted custom caskets for the aging hippie generation, and I wanted to know whether a cemetery would accept and bury oddly shaped caskets or caskets made from unorthodox materials. Here’s how I got my questions answered: I drove to a local funeral home without so much as a preliminary phone call, walked in the door, and, sweating, blurted out my questions to the lady who was working there. I didn’t even have paper with me to take notes. Then I muttered “thank you” and darted out the door. I was a little freaked out about lurking around a funeral parlor, and had psyched myself out pretty hard about how to broach the subject with the Igor-esque persona I had imagined I’d find working at a funeral parlor, but as it was, I was the one who came off looking weird.
A few years later, I freelanced for a living and improved my interviewing skills by writing biomedical engineering articles and calling and chatting with academics in that field, including even a Nobel Prize laureate.
Then, in 2015, I used those skills to interview a friend’s husband for The Flower Wars and it was 2 days at their house plus a follow-up session at a pizza joint of him answering my questions about his time in the Marine Corps. I feel really grateful and fortunate to have had that experience. Jon brought out his photo albums of his time in Iraq, as well as the damaged body armor he was wearing when he was accidentally shot (the first time, in training, which isn’t reflected in the story I wrote; Weetzy’s WIA scene closely follows what happened to Jon in Hellhouse during the battle of Fallujah). The interview was emotionally heavy: Jon cried at one point, and I had to take a break to compose myself. Unexpectedly, this experience turned out to be one of the primary personal benefits of writing the story.
Recently, I started preliminary work on a new piece. I needed to interview a scientist to lay the groundwork for the story world I was creating, so when my LinkedIn network didn’t turn up the right person, I searched online at local universities. One unknown name seemed as good as another, until I noticed that some professors had photos and others didn’t. Suddenly, I ran across a candid snapshot of a casually dressed guy in sunglasses with floppy, unkempt hair and a friendly smile. I scrolled through a few more photos of serious-looking professors posed in front of bookshelves and went back to the smiling guy. I emailed him, explained what I was up to, and asked if he’d be game for helping me invent a fantasy world. Indeed he was! I could not have picked a better candidate, as he turned out to be the social glue in his department and introduced me around generously, so I was able to ask more questions of several other scientists and researchers. Going forward, I’m using this new criterion for picking subject matter experts, and I hereby recommend it to you: all else being equal, pick the friendly-looking candidate.
7. Give credit where due. This isn’t the law (at least, not always). It’s just nice. And it gives you the warm fuzzies to do it. Cite your sources. Thank the people who gave you their time and attention.
8. Be as organized or as free as you like. No one’s grading you. School’s out. I have notes all over the place: on my computer in several different files. On my smartphone. In two handwritten journals, with the only reason for starting a second one being that I was going to the beach to write and didn’t want sand in the bound one, so the entries are totally out of order. I have research notes on Post-Its, for crying out loud. As long as you can figure it out later, do what works.
9. Practically speaking, here’s how you take notes.
I used to do everything by hand, and then I got a better computer. I made it many years with cheap paper and pens, and then with shitty computers. A nice laptop is a luxury and not a necessity, and I still write about half of first drafts by hand because I want to go places with my writing that aren’t laptop-friendly, like the beach or camping. (I try to shake all of the sand out of my library books before I return them.) When I interview people in person, sometimes I scribble quickly and sometimes I take my laptop. It seems to depend on whim and whether I feel the need to look professional in front of someone I don’t know very well (note: wardrobe crisis included here).
But, assuming you’re doing some research online, a good computer is nice for copying and pasting links into a single document where you can keep track of all of your research, and for capturing screenshots of images you find helpful. By “good,” I mean that it starts up quickly and isn’t plagued by viruses, so that you don’t lose valuable writing time on IT issues.
What you write down:
I dunno. I just, like, stick Post-Its on any relevant page in the book I’m reading if I don’t have my laptop with me and refer to the Post-Its later. If I do have my laptop, I type notes into a master research document, which is organized in order of when I ran compiled the notes, meaning, it’s not very organized.
Concrete info and corrections:
I’ve already said I researched concurrently when writing The Flower Wars because the story is the boss. So it was necessary to keep track of potential issues that would need to be cleaned up with research. When I typed up my handwritten drafts of the story, or drafted on the computer, I would just highlight the potentially problematic section, add a comment using Words editing tools, and keep writing the story. Here is an example from an early draft of the document (click the image to enlarge and then the “back” button to return to this page; note that I have changed some characters’ names since this draft):
A good computer also makes it quick and easy to take screenshots, which are useful for helping you cement your familiarity with the subject matter. I’ve never seen another writer advise this, but I did it a lot with The Flower Wars because I had trouble visualizing the world I was creating, so I took a few weeks to research the setting after I was already pretty entrenched in the story. I drew a little cartoon of Weetzy so I could “see” him (I copied Benito Juarez’s face, but made him younger and ripped, and changed his hair to something more badass). And for Lord General Ash’s house, I found a drool-worthy estate in San Miguel de Allende on the Sotheby’s website and took over 40 screenshots of it that I kept in a separate file. I asked my mom for help identifying the plants used in the landscaping, and made notes that included lines I imagined could be added to the story, though in actuality I used very few. Here is a sample:
(The little “dream house,” as it was called, is no longer for sale on Sotheby’s International. If anyone knows who bought it, tell them I’d like to come visit.)
I also made some screenshots of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House, but then wrote this:
I don’t like this one as much for inspiration beyond the size and the carved blocks. This is Frank Lloyd Wright’s take on “What if the Aztecs had made it to modernity?” and I am having my own field day answering the question differently than he did.
10. …Speaking of which, make stuff up. It’s fiction. As long as you’re true to your story world and not making mistakes that distract your readers, all’s fair.
Just look at the amazing, far-fetched stories that exist in the world: flying cars and people who can dodge bullets and aliens and wizards and on and on. The chances are slim that your story is going to be so wildly implausible that you can’t devise some way for it to be realistic within the context of your story world. The more fantastical your setting, the more leeway you have.
At the end of the day, it’s fiction, and it is borne out of your head and no one else’s. No matter how you write it, someone won’t like how you did it, especially if they have an emotional connection to the subject matter, but you can’t let that stop you from writing a good story. Haters gonna hate. You must let the story, not those people, be the boss.
Note: images for Lord General Ash’s house are screenshots taken in Spring 2015 on Sotheby’s International.