Fiction research is essential. Does it seem intimidating? This guest post from Fred Johnson of Standoutbooks will help.
New writers tend to get very excited when it comes to getting stuck into their newest story or novel. Such passion is great, but a successful work of fiction is the result not just of passion, but of hard work, redrafting, and research. It’s this final process, the ugly duckling of the bunch, that I want to look into.
Why is fiction research important?
There’s an ill-conceived image of the writer as some imaginative shut-in who can conjure wonderful stories, but who knows nothing about the real world. Some writers will cling to this image, shunning unglamorous research, but I’m here to tell you why you neglect research at your own peril (even if you’re not writing historical fiction or sci-fi!).
Here’s why research is important.
Language: you need to know how your characters talk
How will you know how your characters talk if you don’t research it? This most obviously applies to historical fiction, where anachronistic language can kill a novel’s claim to historical authority, but it applies to every other form of fiction too. Got a character who’s a scientist? Better learn your periodic table and some basic science, because chances are that character is going to be slipping into science-speak at some point. Is your novel set in the Bronx? You’d best look into regional dialects and vocabularies. It’s all about ensuring authenticity.
You get the idea—you have to know how your characters talk; what language they use; and any slang, colloquialisms, and dialects unique to your setting.
Avoid anachronisms: it’s vital
You can’t have Sir Lancelot (a fifth-century knight) pull out a longsword (a fifteenth-century weapon) or have a medieval English peasant snacking on rice and tea. But these are obvious examples—what about this extract from a novel set during the Great Fire of London:
“The street urchin turned to her brother. ‘Where’s Margaret, Timmy?’
The boy was caked in soot. ‘Why, she ran out just twenty minutes ago.’”
Seems fine, right? But minutes would have been foreign to poor children growing up in the seventeenth century—they wouldn’t have had access to clocks or watches, and wouldn’t have been able to tell the time even if they had.
It’s worth bearing language in mind here too—hundreds of words we use on a daily basis were not in use even as recently as a hundred years ago. And I’m not just talking about the obvious ones that refer to technological innovations—the word “silhouette,” for example, did not enter the language until the nineteenth century.
Your novel needs to make sense: internal logic
Every book, even the most abstract absurdist experiment and the most out-there sci-fi novel, abides by its own internal logic. This is what makes a cohesive and watertight novel—when something happens, characters will respond in a way that feels consistent. The events that occur will not be jarring.
Remember that even made-up societies are going to have their own social practices, dominant cultural norms, and idiosyncratic prejudices. If you transfer the dominant logics of our own modern world onto your dystopian sci-fi society, something’s going to feel off—we’re responding to completely different social stimuli than your cave-dwelling, robot-fighting survivors of the Tylar VI skin plague.
Obviously, you can’t research how cave-dwelling, robot-fighting plague survivors live, but you can at least research nomadic societies, prehistoric human practices, and the anthropological work of people like Charles Darwin and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Such research can also help you avoid appropriating or misrepresenting someone else’s culture.
So, we’ve established that research is important. But it seems like an awful lot of work—how can you make it easier? What are the best ways of going about it?
Do your fiction research, but don’t write for your research
So you’ve started research—great—but don’t overdo it! I see writers occasionally who have a vague idea of what their novel is going to be about—say, drug runners on the Mexican border in the 1980s—and who gather dozens of books about Mexico, the 1980s, the Mexican-American border, the American border states, racism, drugs, and guns.
Several years and a few hundred pages of notes later, the writer has finished research. He/She writes up the book and finds that 80 percent of the notes he/she made did not influence the writing process and did not improve the book.
What gives? Easy—you need to know enough about the book you are going to write before you sit down to do the research. You should already have a plan detailing how your plot will progress, the themes you will touch upon, who your characters are, etc.
This way, you’ll know what to look for when you research, and your time and efforts will be spent more efficiently. And if your research uncovers something that means you have to rethink your whole plan, then great—re-plan, adapt, and continue researching. Your book will be better for it.
Don’t rub your research in readers’ faces
I get it—you’ve spent months reading about colonial Brazil and you want to share your knowledge. But this doesn’t mean you should examine every tiny detail of that colonial Brazilian setting in your book. After all, you wouldn’t expect a contemporary writer to explain how, in modern-day New York:
“the sidewalks, which were to the sides of the wide roads, were made of concrete and tarmac. Beneath the red neon billboard advertising Coca-Cola (a popular soft drink made using high fructose corn syrup), the brick window frames housed panes of clear glass. Double-glazing—the standard in New York.”
Thinking in these terms can help you decide whether a detail is really necessary or whether you’re just keen to justify your research: if something is so mundane that you wouldn’t mention it in a novel set in your own town and in your own time, don’t mention it in your actual novel.
The internet is great, but there are other methods too
Ever notice how the busiest sections of a library are the computer banks? Books—particularly history books and encyclopedias—are often neglected these days, and it’s not hard to understand why. Why leaf through an ancient encyclopedia full of outdated information when you can just go on Wikipedia? Why turn to historians when you can find essays, summaries, and discussions online?
Yes, the internet is a wonderful resource for fiction writers, but sometimes it’s best to look off the beaten track. Encyclopedias can be useful precisely because they tend to reflect the dominant social attitudes and prejudices of the time in which they were written, and history books will delve into way more detail than any article you can find online.
Even better, go and talk to an expert. Writing a World War II novel? Find your grandfather or visit the local old folks’ home. Still working on that novel set in colonial Brazil? Find Brazilians to talk to or, if you can’t, try to find an expert on the subject at a local college. Writing Y.A. fiction? Corner a few teenagers (with parental permission of course) and learn what makes them tick.
You don’t even have to leave the house. If you’re struggling to write believable dialogue, watch some films or TV shows and pay close attention to the characters’ speech. Read other works of fiction set in the same era you’re writing about. Make lots of notes.
And Remember: some writers are more imaginative than others. Some, like famous American poet Emily Dickinson, can conjure whole worlds from the comforts of a single room. Others, like Jack Kerouac, need to get out there and experience life before they can write a single word.
For both types of writers, research is important, but it takes on different forms. Dickinson read everything she could get her hands on and wrote letters to writers and poets all around America. This wouldn’t have worked so well for Kerouac—he had to talk to people, experience things, and see the world for himself. One isn’t better than the other—it’s all a matter of finding what works for you.
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