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.

1 comments:

Symphony June 12, 2010 at 2:28 AM  

I love the paragraph about becoming everything you've ever wanted to be through the escape and art of writing. :) It's a beautiful idea and a joy everyone should know. And, through research, you learn so much! With fiction writing, you really could end up very well-rounded. Loved this post!

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