As fiction writers, we’re often encouraged to write what we know, and it’s easy to interpret this adage as reassurance that we will never need to go beyond our comfort-zone of knowledge and to instead rejoice that we can write a story or novel without ever having to conduct ‘research’. After all, writers want to create, not regurgitate.
If a writer chooses this interpretation, though, it’s likely they’ll find their doted-on manuscripts languishing in drawers and inboxes and dropboxes. Writing what we know does not mean limiting ourselves to certain demographic, cultural, or experiential content. A.X. Ahmad, the author of the Ranjit Singh thrillers, posted an excellent essay describing this reasoning. To quote briefly from that essay, he notes that his writing teacher “was not instructing us to be bound by the material provided by our lives, but to be faithful to our emotional experiences.”
Writing what we know means to be authentic to the human experience. To create full and multi-faceted characters that eschew stereotypes and cliches.
But that is not the only work ascribed to an author when writing a novel. We must transport our readers to the world we’ve created , whether it is one familiar or alien to our audience. And THAT is where research comes in.
One of my favorite authors of all time is P.D. James, the prolific mystery writer who also dabbled in nonfiction and sci-fi (she wrote Children of Men, for crying out loud!). To take a cue from her own methodology, which she so often lovingly described in her acknowledgments page at the end of each novel, I’ve distilled this process into four recommendations.
Disclaimer: I realize these points may not apply as aptly to authors of historical fiction, where impeccable research of the time period is part and parcel with the genre. Still, I hope they might still prove helpful to any HF authors reading this.
Second Disclaimer: I also realize that, were my academic colleagues to read this post, they might be inclined to disapprove of these techniques because they don’t follow the criteria for sufficient evidence in scientific inquiry, so it is here that I remind them that, as writers, we are seeking to provide an authentic presentation of an imagined world and imagined people, not to recreate a preexisting reality.
- People. People. People.
Aside from a few weirdos out there, its a dirty little secret that academics don’t even like reading research articles. They’re dry, often myopic in focus, and tedious to get through. If you are creating a character who is a theoretical physicist or another with a certain unique genetic disorder, you might be tempted to delve into the academic literature of that field to gather nuggets of information for your writing, and more than likely you will learn about the respective topic. But I can guarantee that you won’t learn as much as efficiently as a well-organized interview with an expert in the field could provide.
P.D. James wrote books that examined aspects of the law, the medical field, and mental illness. For each of these specialties, she noted in her acknowledgments individuals whom she consulted for invaluable insights into the daily workings of the respective field.
We are in an age now where experts and specialists are just a click away online. We can find the contact information for almost anyone. Even if you don’t live near your expert, phone meetings or Skype sessions are possible. Experts are busy, certainly, but a respectful inquiry for a 30-minute segment of their time to speak about the topic they’ve devoted their professional lives to? More than likely they’ll agree, and more than likely they’ll enjoy the process. Even if they brush you off, what do you have to lose? Only hours sipping tepid coffee and breathing in decades worth of dust in the microfiche section (or, perhaps more likely in today’s world, carpal tunnel from clicking on a promising article only to find that it costs $35 to rent it).
And, for the experts whose professional lives may not offer the same flexibility as an academic expert, consider reaching out via your weak social ties. Find someone in your social network who knows a retired cop, beautician, accountant, or lawyer. Or someone encountering special circumstances in their life that are unique and challenging. The list of potential topics is infinite, but more than likely someone in your network will know someone who can help you connect with the person you need to talk to. Six degrees of separation is even easier, too, thanks to Facebook, Twitter, etc. So go find your source!
2. Stories beget stories.
Another avenue for gathering information (or even sparking a new writing project) is the almost infinite array of material offered via podcasts and online media. I’ve posted some of my recommendations on this blog already, so I won’t list them again, but it’s worth mentioning that podcasts cater to myriad interests and are often well-edited and entertaining. They may not offer the same rigor as a research article which is peer-reviewed, but they certainly provide sparks of ideas that can be further confirmed through later research (see #3 below).
When researching schizophrenia for my debut novel with Pandamoon publishing, A Flash of Red (coming Winter 2016), I found Elyn Saks’ memoir, The Center Cannot Hold, and her TED talk fertile ground for beginning an exploration of this facet of the human experience. Rather than simply examining aggregate evidence of the symptomatology in research studies, Elyn’s candor provided glimpses into the un-quantifiable aspects of her illness. And, at least in my experience as a reader myself, it is the intangible made tangible that draws us into a story.
3. When all else fails, manualize it.
I know I just spent the first two points noting that we should reach out to other people and their stories, rather than texts, for content when researching a work. Here’s where I backtrack slightly and recommend a few textual foundations for your research. P.D. James would often mention a valuable and summative reference book or two in her acknowledgements, and it is these same multipurpose tomes that I recommend as well. You can view my thoughts on mental illness and developmental disorder manuals here.
Other fields of inquiry often offer compendiums or manuals summarizing their most recent advances. Excellent places to search for such content would be through your expert interviewee’s recommendations (if you’re lucky, they might even loan you a copy) and/or scholar.google.com. Chapters are sometimes featured as pdfs that are downloadable. Complete books can also be accessed via books.google.com. I particularly find edited books, featuring chapters written by different experts in the field, to be valuable. They cover a broader expanse of information than single research articles, but often feature the same rigor of inquiry.
4. Be present.
As my featured quote from P.D. James entreats, writers must be present and open to experiences in life. If our character’s inner worlds are not authentic, no amount of correct terminology or procedures described accurately and in great detail will save our novel. Whereas errors in the description of a medical exam or a crime scene analysis might be forgiven, cliched and featureless characters will not.
As writers, we cannot recreate the human experience unless we also watch, listen, and feel the world around us. If opportunities present themselves, we should take them and observe them carefully. Live a life rich in experience and presence of mind, and that will come through in your writing.
As James reminds us so eloquently, nothing of life is wasted (or should be wasted) by a writer.