On the importance of research to fiction writing

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Despite my claims in my last post, I finished The House at Riverton this morning, long before Dead and Gone.  The last hundred pages or so really flew by, and I couldn't put the book down.  I love when that happens.  Morton has a gift for stretching out the secrets of her plot until the last possible page, and the ending of HaR was beautiful, haunting, and masterfully composed.  A rare feat, I believe, when endings are often so hard to get right.

One of the things I love about Morton's writing is how skillfully she moves between the contemporary moment and her characters' pasts, which are always just as important, if not more important, as what is happening to them in the present.  Typically, the setting for that past is Britain in the early twentieth century, and in this novel Morton had to know and understand what servant life on a grand country estate was like, as well as about World War I, women's suffrage, the Roaring Twenties, society life, and the burgeoning film industry.  A rather daunting list of research topics.

I think writers sometimes overlook how important research can be to fiction--or at the very least, readers often underestimate how much research goes into writing a novel.  To me, research is one of the most exciting parts of the writing process.  Perhaps this is because I also spend so much time doing academic research for my dissertation, which is in eighteenth-century British literature and postcolonial theory, not in creative writing.  But I also think research allows me to accomplish one of the goals I've always had in my writing--to become someone else.

When I was a kid, I dreamed of becoming a writer one day, but I also wanted to be a lawyer, an architect, an Egyptologist, a psychologist, an artist, and a musician.  I realized early on that most of those dreams were impossible (I'm a terrible musician and I can't draw to save my life)--on one level.  What I realized was that as a writer, I can become all of those things, and I don't even have to go to school or have any talent in those fields to do it--I just have to do the research, and then I can write about those topics.

Yesterday, I got to spend much of my day doing exactly that.  The protagonist in my novel secretly wants to be a haute couture fashion designer; even though she's studying drawing and photography, she really wants to  create "wearable art."  So I spent some time yesterday researching exactly what kind of fashion designer she would be, looking at countless designer websites, flipping through their collections, and studying images from recent New York and Paris fashion weeks.  A guy she meets is a botanist, so I spent some time figuring out what college he went to.  I wanted him to have gone to an Ivy League school near Boston, and it had to have a botany program.  Specifically, I really wanted him to have gone to Dartmouth, and after some time playing on the Dartmouth biological sciences department website, I realized they had a concentration in plant biology--close enough.  I also created a new flower for this particular scene, and even though I had an idea in my mind about what I wanted it to look like, I wanted to compare it to real flowers, so I spent half an hour looking at pictures of flowers and reading about their individual properties.  Smaller searches were done on the Na Pali Coast of Kauai, wheat fields, the Phoenician language, and perflurocarbons, and I even spent some time Photoshopping some of the designer dresses I found to create one I thought would appeal to my protagonist.  All in all, several hours of research for only four pages of text!

That may seem extreme, and it's true that not all stories or even all parts of this novel call for so much outside information, but the key to good writing, I find, is in the details, in being as concise and precise as possible.  Sometimes, when we're writing about something outside our immediate field of knowledge, we don't have the proper vocabulary or mental image to capture those details, but a little research can go a long way toward making writing more authoritative, more precise, and, most importantly, more believable.


The Candy, Steak, and Brussel Sprouts of Novels

Monday, June 7, 2010

I've given my students an hour of our three hour long class tonight to work on drafting their final research paper, so I thought that while they were writing I should, too.  I spent most of today grading their critical analysis papers and prepping for class tonight, so I only had time to write a couple of pages on The Novel, but I did find time for a bit of reading.  I find that when I'm writing I also must be reading the kinds of works that inspire me, and today it occurred to me that I'm currently reading three books simultaneously: The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith, The House at Riverton by Kate Morton, and Dead and Gone by Charlaine Harris, the ninth book in the Sookie Stackhouse (True Blood) series.

I guarantee you I'll finish the last book first.  Why?  Because it's the junk food of the bunch, and I love junk food (literally and metaphorically).  I had a student last semester ask me why books like Twilight are so popular, and I told him it's because they are like candy--or like junk food.  They have no nutritional value, and in many ways they'll probably harm you more than help you, but they're yummy.  It's hard to resist a piece of candy if the choice is between that and a brussel sprout (at least if you have a sweet tooth like mine).  Junk food, like the Sookie Stackhouse novels, is hard to resist when the choice is between it and The Vicar of Wakefield.  Reading the Vicar is more beneficial in the long run--it's on my comps  list, afterall, and reading eighteenth-century novels helps me to understand more about how we got to the novel form as it is today--but it isn't much fun.  It's the brussel sprout of the group, the text I have to force myself to swallow but know that in the end it's good for me and that I won't regret it.

Kate Morton's book falls somewhere in-between.  I don't eat her books up like candy, not because they aren't compelling and entertaining, but because I prefer to savor them, like a good steak.  Her books are the kind of rare works that truly make me dread reaching that final sentence.  They are beautiful and lyrical and honest and emotional, without being overwritten or cliche or meladramatic.  The House at Riverton is the second book of Morton's I've read (the other being The Forgotten Garden, her only other book until The Distant Hours comes out this fall), and I find it as captivating and inspiring as the first.  Her characters are beautifully flawed and real; her story lines are so intricate, weaving past and present together effortlessly; and her settings are always so meticulously drawn.  She is exactly the kind of writer I want to be and secretly fear I never will be.

So given a choice between the three books sitting on my night stand, I might grab the candy first, but only because the steak is worth the wait.


A Digression on Travel and Water Lilies

Friday, June 4, 2010

I was fortunate enough to spend last weekend in New York (one of the benefits of now living only five hours from the city), so my next few posts will probably be about different things I saw and learned while I was there.  It had been awhile since I was in the city, so I did the normal touristy things (Times Square, Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building), some of which I'd never done, as well as visited some of my favorite museums, saw the Stephen Sondheim musical A Little Night Music on Broadway, and went to a Yankees game.  There were setbacks all along the way, but for each disappointment there seemed to always be a small reward.

For example, A Little Night Music stars Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury, but when we got to the theater we found out that Catherine was ill and would not be performing. That was certainly disappointing (although her understudy was absolutely amazing and Angela Lansbury was fabulous), but a lot of people exchanged their tickets because she would not be appearing, so we got to sneak from our nose-bleed balcony seats to some of the now-empty mezzanine seats. After listening to the cast recording and reading reviews, I'm actually sort of glad we got to see Jayne Paterson play the role of Desiree instead of CZJ.  Her voice was amazing, she fit the part exactly (I thought), and her rendition of "Send in the Clowns" brought me to tears. I only wish I could get a recording of her version because every version I've listened to since then (including CZJ's, Sinatra's, Streisand's, Judy Collins's, and Glynis Jones's) seems sub-par.

Better seats also came our way at the Yankees game.  A couple wanted to switch with us so they could sit with their friends, so we got to move about ten rows closer.  (Great seats, on the third base line.)  The disappointment came in that A-Rod had been given the night off and Posada is on the DL, so they weren't playing.  But we still won (8-2 against the Indians), I got to see Cano hit a grand slam, and I got to hear "New York, New York" played over the loud speaker at the end and sing and sway with thousands of true Yankees fans, so it was a great night.

The most disappointing thing that happened, though, was that MoMA had none of their Monets on display at the moment, but when I asked about it a lady told me there was a fabulous exhibit (the best she had seen) at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea.  I checked their hours (10-6, Tues-Sat), and Saturday afternoon we headed to Chelsea, only to find that the gallery was closed!!!  We weren't the only disappointed ones--we met other groups coming and going to the gallery who were all upset that the gallery had decided to close for the day, but unlike most of those people, we weren't New Yorkers who could come back the following weekend.

Monet is my favorite artist, so there was really nothing "good" that could come from this disappointment, like in the other two cases.  I have since looked at the exhibition online (linked above), and my only consolation is that many of these paintings are on loan from the Musee Marmottan in Paris, which I visited in 2005, and that the layout and space of the exhibition has nothing on Marmottan (a whole room of Nympheas!).  I also self-indulgently high-tailed it (okay, I actually waited until Sunday) to the Met, which has several rooms almost entirely devoted to Monet, so that I could sit and bask in the calmness that only the Water Lilies can create.

I have seen the Water Lilies in many galleries and museums (the National Gallery in D.C., the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Art Institute in Chicago, the National Gallery in London, Musee Marmottan and Musee d'Orsay in Paris), and although many of them appear very similar, I never tire of looking at them.  Just being in their soothing presence, seeing Monet's thick brush strokes and masterful manipulation of color, calms me and gives me a feeling I can only describe as joy.  This is the feeling I was after on Sunday when I bypassed thousands of masterpieces in the Met in search of the one piece I wanted desperately to see--Monet's Water Lilies.  I sat in front of one of the later Nympheas--from the time when Monet's cataracts were worsening and his paintings of Giverny became increasingly darker and more abstract--and let myself get lost in the color, let the painting sweep me away to a happier place, one in which I was not in a crowded museum gallery with dozens of other people, but alone with the painting, alone with perhaps Monet himself.

The Water Lilies always spark something inside of me--the feeling I earlier described as joy--that makes me want to create--to create art, to create beauty, to give someone else the feeling Monet has so graciously shared with me.  Right now I'm working on a rather strange project--part performance, part flash fiction.  I don't know where it will take me or if I'll even be able to finish it, but I have Monet (and Marina Abramovic and Picasso, but I'm saving them for another post) to thank for the inspiration.


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