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The Research – Write what you know OR know what you write: Novel Writing Prep Series

I love research!  As a little girl, I used to dream of being locked in a library overnight surrounded by all of my favorite books – fiction and non-fiction.  The makings of a horror movie, I know.  But I was confident that as long as I had light and no scary spirits or monsters, I could indulge my love of reading and research all night. Along with hours spent at the swimming pool and playing “Smear the Queer” with my older brother, I spent my summers writing reports.  Nerdy! I know.  I prefer the term “Intellectual Badass” when referencing my self-admitted nerdiness.  The reports were handwritten pages filled with facts about unicorns or Armenia (not sure where that idea came from) or the humpbacked whale.  I got great satisfaction out of popping my dime into the Xerox copy machine and watching the green-glowing light glide slowly underneath the lid. I’d cut out my grainy black-and-white pictures of medieval triptychs depicting unicorns and paste them on my lined notebook paper.  The final step was gathering up my fact-filled pages and inserting them into the acetate report cover.  Ahhh… such satisfaction for a nerd intellectual badass.

My love of useless and useful facts has continued as an adult. It benefits me greatly in my non-fiction writing life.  Digging up remote facts about the mountain goat pictographs in the Sierra del Presidio area of Mexico, is often just what I need to bring interest to a magazine or newspaper article.

The realm of fiction is where research gets a little dicey.  Many writing teachers and writers will tell you to, “Write what you know.”  If I only wrote what I know, my stories would be populated with 30-something mothers who attend endless PTA meetings, shuttle their kids back and forth to ski lessons and have ongoing battles with their treadmills.  Oh… and maybe sneak in a few hours to write after everyone else is in bed.  Not the makings of a best-selling novel.

I’m a firm believer that knowing what you write is just as beneficial as writing what you know – and more interesting.  Research can give you a solid backdrop against which your novel unfolds.  However, knowing when to say when is the key.  You can spend months searching for just one more fact, but in the end all the facts in the world won’t get that novel written.

With that said, I believe some research is vital to any good fiction writer’s repertoire. In knowing what you write, you can write what you know. Here are a few of my favorite research methods:

1.  Interviews: Maybe it’s my background as a journalist, but whenever I need to know something, I go straight to the source.  Maybe you can’t always write what you know, but you can write what other people know intimately.  My historical fiction novel takes place in St. Louis in 1949.  A dear friend’s mother grew up in the late-30s and early-40s in St. Louis.  An hour spent on the phone with Mrs. W. gave me a notebook full of recollections that I couldn’t find online or in any books.  I spent hours poring over history books, but none had information about the horserace track which was two blocks from my character’s house in University City, Missouri.  Mrs. W. not only recalled the details of the racetrack, but she could describe the ice cream cones she used to buy at the corner drug store on her way to the races. Through interviews with others I was transported back to a time almost 25 years before I was born.

2.  Social Security and Census Records: Did you know that the Social Security Adminstration and the U.S. Census Bureau make their records available online? These are great resources for placing you squarely in a particular time or place.  Let’s say your story takes place in New Orleans.  Your protagonist’s father needs a job. You could guess at iron worker or musician.  OR, you could visit the U.S. Census Bureau’s records for 1932.  The records will give you population, nationality and employment statistics for each ward of the city.  You might stumble upon the one person, an Italian immigrant who was the city’s agricultural manager, supervising the shipments of soybeans and hogs that were exported out of New Orleans to Asia.  What a fascinating job! Just what you need to bring your story to life.

Maybe you need a name for a main character.  Your story takes place in 2012, but your antagonist was born in 1983.  Visit the Social Security Administration’s records and sort by birth year.  You’ll discover lists of the top 20 names for boys and girls in 1983.  Jennifer or Jessica might be just the name you need for your snooty retail clerk who is sucking up for the management position.

3. Newspapers: My favorite!  Newspapers chronicle the daily life of people, providing a glimpse into the everyday minutiae that make our world interesting.  If it were possible to preserve microfiche for millions of years, future anthropologists will have riotous fun studying our daily and weekly newspapers.  Head out to a library and dig in to some issues from the correct time or location.  My 2010 NaNoWriMo novel takes place in a small farm town in central Illinois.  In reading local newspapers, I discovered a pumpkin carving contest that was the perfect setting for my MC’s first paranormal experience.  Thanks to one photo published in the Daily Chronicle in DeKalb, Illinois, an entire scene took shape within minutes.

Newspapers are good for more than just the articles.  I needed products to populate the shelves of my corner drug store in my historical fiction novel.  Old copies of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch provided plenty of advertisements for Amident Toothpaste and the introduction of Cheer no-rinse washing detergent which helped bring my MC’s place of employment to life.

4.  Prospector: My inter-library loan uses Prospector. This program provides access to over 10 million titles from around the U.S.  Books that I can often have shipped right to my local library.  And true to its title, Prospector really is like digging for gold.  Searching by keyword might only produce 40 or 50 titles on a particular subject at my local library.  However, when I push that Prospector button, it’s like waiting for Christmas morning.  I have been rewarded with some of the most obscure titles – dusty, old books read by only a few and shelved away for years.  Those are the books that give me insight into particular time periods or cultures.

5.  Library Archives: Sometimes books and records are too precious (or flimsy) to survive the transport of inter-library or cross-country loan.  that’s when a trip might be in order. We’ll talk about that more in Part 12 of the Novel Writing Prep Series (“The Setting – To trip or not to trip?”).  There’s nothing more fun than squirreling yourself away in library stacks for a day and discovering hidden gems for your story.

For example, one of my characters, Ivy, was taking a train from St. Louis to New York City in 1949.  I could stick her on any old train, but what did I really know about trains and routes in the late 40s.  Instead I was lucky enough to visit the John W. Barringer III National Railroad Library within the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri – St. Louis.  I stumbled upon an old issue of a railroad magazine.  As a result I could put Ivy on the NY-STL Express (Train #11 which left St. Louis at 7:40 a.m.) or  I could put her on the STL-NY “National Limited” with air-conditioned carrier sleeper cars.  These facts might not be important to some, but I never would have assumed that sleeper cars had air-conditioning in 1949.  This fact turned out to be key to the scene.

In case you were wondering, I didn’t make the research trip just to determine which train Ivy should take.  Two days at the Merc Library gave me pages of facts and figures and the base of research I needed to launch Ivy’s story.  It is this type of research that helps me feel like I know what I’m writing so that I can write what I know.

What about you?  Do you research your subject matter or your characters before you sit down to write? How do you conduct your research? How do you know when enough is enough?

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. hannahkarena #

    I do extensive research before I start writing. Mostly because if I do it after the fact, I know I’m basically going to have to rewrite it anyway; things will be factual wrong in the first draft, I’ll be inspired to create new characters or plot twists after I do the research, etc. Research is a great way to get my creative juices flowing!

    February 28, 2012

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