Thursday, October 6, 2011

What? Fiction Requires Research?

When I was a child and a teen, I did all my writing at white heat. (I can almost never do this anymore; however, I still create plots on the fly.) I didn't stop to labor over much of anything, such as revision. Or research. I didn't know research was needed. Oh, when I set one of my teenage-era novels in Chicago, it niggled at me that maybe I needed to know something about Chicago. But I figured, Nah. It's a big city. I can make it up. Because with fiction, the belief goes, "you can make it all up." I hear this from students fairly often. Research and facts are important for nonfiction, but fiction sets you free in that you can write whatever you want and nobody can say it's wrong.

Well, no.

Fiction requires research. Big time. Historical fiction may spring to mind as the most obvious example. Here, research is required not only to portray the historical period and events accurately, but to help you with character motivations (what events shaped these people?), the zeitgeist of the time (were people optimistic? pessimistic? religious? freethinkers? altruistic? looking out for #1?), and finding exciting plot events. If you begin your research by reading two or three good general histories of the period, that may be where you find your real story. And fascinating  primary sources such as diaries, newspapers, and letters can give you the voices, everyday details, and priceless anecdotes that breathe life and veracity into your story.

But historical fiction is far from the only genre that requires research. Really, all genres do. From police procedurals to legal thrillers to multicultural books to books set in foreign countries, to stories featuring figure skating, lacrosse, coin collecting, wilderness survival -- any specific pursuit or setting, they all require research if you're to make your story honest, plausible, and worthwhile to those readers who know more about these topics than you do. Writing, even fiction writing, is actually a wonderful way for the writer to remain a lifelong learner.

So...does loving research (call it loving LEARNING) give one a serious leg up in becoming a good writer? Yes, I believe it does.

What about high fantasy? Suppose your story is set in a world wildly different from Earth, and your characters aren't of any recognizable earthly species? Can you make "everything" up in that case? I have two thoughts. One is that even if your characters aren't human, your readers must be able to relate to them. Fiction is an emotional/soulish/spiritual experience, and your protagonist's emotional progression must be comprehensible to your audience. Which means, if your characters are experiencing conflict and loss of certain types, and you need help in understanding the stages people go through in these situations, yes, you need research. Research into humans will help you with your not-human-but-relatable characters. My second thought is yes, you can make up your entire fictional world -- BUT, if you want readers to understand and feel grounded in your story, you have to create a world that has its own facts, organization, society, and ways of life. A world that makes sense and is consistent on its own terms. You may be the creator of the facts in this world. But facts there will be, and you'll need your own record of them so YOU can look them up when necessary!

I'm glad that if I ever need to research contemporary fifth grade, there's an elementary school right down the block. :)

Do you like research? What's the biggest or most unusual thing you've ever researched? The smallest?

22 comments:

Laura Pauling said...

I do love research! It usually inspires plot too. So many benefits.

Ann Herrick said...

I read a whole book about minor league baseball just so that a couple of small references to it, which were a very minor part of the story, would be accurate in one of my books.

Angela Ackerman said...

I like to research, but I don't let it take over. I have an idea, research to see if it will work logically, and then move on. :)

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Vijaya said...

Unlike Angela, I use research as a tool to procrastinate. I can be endlessly fascinated by creatures and places and people and usually it's some little tidbit that I just have to share that has spawned many a magazine article.

Case in point. I read a dinky five-line, 1/3rd column blurb about cat purring and bone healing in Scientific American and so I looked up what that was all about and just had to share it with kids. If you want to read it, it's here: http://www.vijayabodach.com/Purrfect%20Way%20to%20Build%20Up%20Bones.htm

I think Patti Gauch said it best; there can be no fiction without facts.

Barbara Watson said...

I don't love research, but as you say, all fiction writing requires it. The MG historical fiction I write, *clears throat* because I never loved history but do love history woven into story demands research. I don't exhaust myself in it but enjoy seeing the realness of history played out in the fiction of my stories.

Mary Witzl said...

For me, doing research is one of the perks of writing. I've researched the legal implications of finding treasure on your property, POWs, whether it's possible to carry human ashes on an airplane, and screech owls -- among other things. Even if I'm writing fiction, I want to make sure what I've written makes sense. And like Vijaya, I definitely use research to procrastinate. ;o)

cleemckenzie said...

Research is so important, even though it's not in the story, it's behind the story.

My suicidal teen took months of research. What she thought, how she reacted to outside influences, her word choice . . . all were affected by what I'd learned by reading up on the topic.

Mirka Breen said...

I don’t like the idea of research, because it reminds me of homework, which for some absurd reason I do not remember fondly. But once I start, I am so happy to be doing that and to be there.
Maybe what is needed is an attitude adjustment, a reminder that learning and delving is the stuff great things are made of.

How right you are about what fiction requires. I enjoyed your post.

Medeia Sharif said...

I enjoy doing research, even though I go off on a tangent and look up unrelated or semi-related things.

Kim Kasch said...

I enjoy learning so maybe I enjoy researching ;)

MaDonna Maurer said...

I liked that you called research the "loving of Learning". I think that pretty much sums it up and makes it less daunting for those of us that feel "research"= negative feelings from homework days. =)

Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

Used to say I didn't want to write historical fiction because I hated research. HA! Turns out I was afraid of the microfilm machine. And archives. And documents.

I faced my fear and now I can get lost in research. I love all those things I thought I hated.

This week I've been online at a middle school website studying the student-parent handbook, curriculum requirements, and lunch menus. Getting to know my character's life is so much fun! Takes a lot of guess work out of my writing.

Marcia said...

Laura -- Totally agree. Research inspires plot. With a book that I know has to be heavily researched, I say the research comes first. You may not know what the story IS until you get into some research.

Ann -- That's a super example. I agree that it IS that important.

Angela -- Didn't Stephen King say he worked that way? That he leaves holes in the book for things he needs to look up and does it later? To me, though, looking up facts and doing research aren't really the same.

Vijaya -- Oh yes, research can be great for procrastination. But I adore your example too; if that's the fruit of procrastination, you go girl. :)

Barbara -- I didn't like history when I was younger, but when I got that history is STORY, that made all the difference. Now I think how people used to live is fascinating. But it's really about people more than subject matter.

Mary -- I've also enjoyed cataloging the different types of odd research I've done. I thought if you found treasure on your property it was yours?

Lee -- Research is like an iceberg. Some makes it into the story, much more is just the underpinnings. I agree that researching for psychological and emotional accuracy is huge. We are not unlike actors who have to research their roles.

Mirka -- I have to admit I kind of like "research" because it sounds learned. :) When I research for a book, I know WHY I'm learning this stuff, and it's a self-assignment. To me, that really beats doing somebody else's assignment.

Medeia -- And doesn't the internet lead us to do that all the more? Yes, we can get lost in research and look up to find both our research and writing time expired.

Kim -- There you go! Perfect way to back into it. ;)

MaDonna -- I figure anything we want to learn that we seek after ourselves counts as "research."

Joyce -- LOL. You and me both on the microfilm machine! But I've found that when I get into truly old, wonderful, document archives and primary research, it's almost like a holy atmosphere. I feel privileged to be able to have access to such materials. Reaching across the ages is just awesome.

Anna Staniszewski said...

One of my recent projects was realistic fiction, but it starred a girl who loved to bake. I'm not a big baker, so I had research different recipes, etc. I must admit, it was fun research and totally mouth-watering!

Faith E. Hough said...

I like research so much that I have to be careful to remember to stop! But I KNOW that love for learning helps me become a better writer--and, I like to think, a better person.

Marcia said...

Anna -- That's a great example of research needed for a contemporary novel. We get to learn to do a whole lot of stuff vicariously -- haha, at least on paper.

Faith -- I agree it can be tough to stop sometimes. But we never know if those research wanderings will lead to a great new story idea, or to something that really enriches us as people, as you said.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

I love doing research! Sometimes I get so wrapped up in it I forget to write. (wink) I just got back from England and had lots of opportunities to research for my WWII mg novel. I even managed to snag a copy of a 1911 English (from England) dictionary. I hope it helps me stop calling people and asking what they called xxx in England in the past. :)

MG Higgins said...

Oddly, while I write a lot of nonfiction where research is a must, I'm really lazy when it comes to doing research for my fiction. I do much less of it than I should.

Bish Denham said...

I love research, always have. In fact I can get so into researching that I forget the story! (Well, no always but sometimes the research is more interesting than the story idea.)

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

I love doing research, too, although it can be time consuming (sometimes too time consuming). While writing my second novel, I spent almost as much time researching and interviewing people as I did writing the story.

Marcia said...

Sharon -- Sounds like a fantastic trip, and your novel sounds totally up my alley. :)

MG -- I guess it's a mindset that both require it. I think knowing that research can actually help you find and improve the story, which of course we want to be the focus in fiction, helps overcome research reluctance.

Bish -- It CAN be hard to pull away from the research to write. Often it's because what we're studying is just so interesting, But sometimes it's writing procrastination. :o

Cynthia -- I've noticed, when people share how they manage writing WFH on a tight schedule, that the research portion is often as long or almost as long as the time they set aside for the writing. I'm sure plenty of fiction projects require the same.

TerryLynnJohnson said...

I am so glad you posted about this. I've read books that have inaccurate details about dogsledding and I found it very frustrating. Definitely writers should do a bit of research! So far, I haven't done much becuase I've been lazy and only writing about things I know well. But I did try eating the inner bark of a birch tree and drank some twig tea for research. Yum.