Research and the fiction writer

Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne

This post looks at why the fiction writer benefits from research, the best way of handling research, and ends on a warning of how researched material may easily drown rather than enhance the story.

Why research?

This question should be obvious for anyone wanting to write an historical- or fantasy-based story. An historical novel is impossible without research. The writer couldn’t set pen to paper because he would be unable to describe the setting of his world with any sense of believability, which includes not only the obvious physical setting, but the whole intellectual and emotional range required of his characters. The fantasy writer uses historical resources to help build his world as many physical settings of the fantasy tale are comparable to the early middle-ages societies of Northern Europe. Police, medical, law and science-based stories are also some of the more obvious ones requiring research.

Research enhances many types of stories and in any number of ways. Even a simple children’s short story can be improved by it. One story I wrote benefited by a quick research on washing and grooming beards and a list of beard styles with their descriptions.

Research often makes a writer’s original ideas look naïve and this simply means they are learning from the research. Research helps the writer develop a more informed approach to the subject of their story which translates into a classier story if the researched material is handled correctly. Research can help with character, storyline, conflict, theme, and plot and sub-plot development.

The greatest advantage research offers the writer is an understanding of the intellectual and emotional range of the world they are researching. This counts as much for a cop, law, science-based story or story about an athlete, as it does for an historical-based tale. Story is based on character and your story will collapse if your characters are not believable. This means that the characters’ intellectual and emotional range must be believable to the reader within the context of their world. If you do not develop this particular form of insight to a strong degree, you cannot hope to create believable character for your setting. This is important to understand as their intellectual and emotional range dictates their actions and reactions to the events in their world. As an example, how can you hope to show the actions and reactions to important events of a working doctor from the middle of the nineteenth century if you have no understanding of his intellectual and emotional range? It would be a rare writer indeed who had nothing to learn by making enquiries of this nature. Research will help prevent the talented and skilled writer from producing a derivative or completely unbelievable set of characters. Other writers are doing this research and if you are not one of them, you are going to be well out of the running for the bestseller lists.

The right approach

Approach your research as you would any new subject. Start with an overview of the major issues and details before tackling the smaller events and details. Let’s work with an example. Suppose you want to write an historical novel set in Ireland in the 1860s. The story will involve some form of political struggle against Westminster rule (direct rule from London). So you read several history books that give you an overview of the main political, social, economic and cultural realities of Ireland in both the eighteenth and nineteenth century. You can also read novels set in Ireland during this period.

While doing this swotting up, take notes on whatever strikes you as relevant to your own story. In particular, you’ll be looking for any spark of character from the historical narrative that may help you in the development of your own characters’ attributes. Also, be thinking of storyline, theme, plot and sub-plots.

Once you have gained a basic overview of the subject, a bird’s eyes view, start to stick your nose up closer to the setting. You want to see the smaller but still very important details. Character is the heart of the story and so the heart of your research will always focus on character. Your aim is to produce well rounded characters for the setting you have chosen. In our example here, that setting is 1860’s Ireland.

Let’s suppose we’ve chosen to centre our story around a medical doctor in his late forties. The plot revolves around our hero believing British rule is bad for Ireland and he is an agitator for change. He has been a working doctor in the West of Ireland for twenty five years, treating people from all social levels of society. As regards plot, our basic research has informed us of what can only be the most important aspect of this man’s backstory: the Great Irish Famine of the mid 1840s to mid 1850s. The doctor’s experiences from this period of his working life have moulded his present (1860s) perspective on Irish home rule (he wants a parliament in Dublin controlling the country rather than the one in London). The physical and emotional scars of the famine years were still being felt very heavily in the 1860s across much of Ireland.

So we have a basic backstory for the doctor but nothing really personal as yet. We need to move in various directions now and then dig a little deeper. We will try and personalise the famine from our doctor’s perspective.

Our first step in this direction is to get to grips with the general intellectual range of the mid-nineteenth century medical profession. To do this, we return to basics and gain an overview on the history of medicine from that period. We need to know what medical skills and understanding were available back then. Will our doctor have a stethoscope? Does he know what causes cholera? Can he treat smallpox?

Once we have knowledge of these, then we dig deeper by reading up on western doctors who worked during epidemics in mid-nineteenth century. We will look for personal accounts as well as books written by others on the subject. If we can find books or diaries about doctors in Ireland during these actual famine years, then so much the better. But a wider reading will give us a wider range of character to study. This will enable us to deepen our understanding of these men and their intellectual and often emotional reactions to the horrific disasters playing out around them, which more often than not they were completely helpless in preventing.

Our doctor’s medical limitations will directly affect his emotional state. He won’t be using modern and powerful medicines to cure his patients but doing what he can and then leaving the rest in the hands of God. In our story, in the 1860s, the doctor will reflect deeply and often on the famine days because they influence his present political attitudes which are important to the plot. He will often be thinking of the crowded and overworked medical facilities in which he treated the mass of suffering humanity and the political and economic conditions which made this happen. Perhaps at that time he got sick and nearly died himself. It has certainly left him with deep and permanently emotional scars and maybe even physical ones. So it is very important that our research is thorough and that we give this part of his character a full intellectual and emotional range. To help our researches further, we can read modern personalised accounts of doctors working with mass suffering but mostly only for the emotional output the accounts may offer us. Intellectually, modern doctors are in another world.

Of course, there are other aspects to the doctor’s character; for instance, the political one around which the plot revolves. These other aspects will be researched using the same techniques as explained above. First an overview and then go to a deeper level to find the intellectual and emotional range of individual historical actors. Again, personal accounts can help greatly here. We do the same thing with other characters in the story.

Our research provides us with a sense of ‘knowing’ how our characters will respond to any given situation because we have gauged their intellectual and emotional range broadly and deeply. The research needed for ‘knowing’ any character from any setting outside of our own experiences must be thorough.

The smaller details

Imaginatively this is the easiest part but will still be hard work.

During the first and second drafts, you will see how much work you have to do regarding the smaller details, many of these details you won’t have even thought about up to now. These smaller details, though not as important overall as getting the bigger details right, are nonetheless very relevant to the story for building effective and believable scenes. With each draft you will enrich the story that little bit more with this sort of historical description. You will have to leave notes in your manuscript where you need to include, for example, details about the inside of a tenant’s cottage, or a church, or the description of a workhouse (a major detail would be getting right the date of the workhouse’s arrival in Ireland). Most writers add more descriptive detail from one draft to the next, anyway, so this is nothing new.

Overusing research

A lot of research is descriptive or informative and very seductive to the researcher. He may have done massive amounts of research for his story and become quite the expert in the field. He may have become emotionally connected to it; he thinks it has expanded his horizons; he may even believe he is now on a bit of a crusade with it; and let’s not forget it has empowered him to improve his story to no end. As a consequence, he may well think that he is making his work look more sophisticated by piling a lot of it on, and that he is also doing his reader a favour by sharing so much of it with him.

But the trick is not to let the reader know all these things about you. The reader has sat down to read a novel, to be entertained. If he wants an overabundance of facts, he will read a history book. If he wants to be lectured at, he will join a cult. Too much detail prevents the reader from being able to concentrate on either the story or the historical information. The rule should be: is it relevant to the plot or does it enhance the scene without slowing the pace?

A sophisticated text is one that uses research sparingly and in the right way. It may even be one where the reader is hardly aware of it, but would be very aware of its absence.

Let’s sum up!

Some stories obviously benefit from a lot of research but most will benefit from at least a little. Research can enhance character, setting and plot.

Approach your research as you would any new subject. Start with an overall view of the subject and only get deeper into the details when you have an understanding of the bigger picture. Pay particular attention to the needs of character development.

Beware of saturating your work with too much of your researched material. Make your material work in a poignant way in your story rather than just piling it on thickly and often.

Readers might also find these posts helpful:

Types of research material for the fiction writer

Part 1: Why the study of history is relevant for the fantasy writer

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About jerrydunne

This entry was posted in Miscellaneous, Writing fantasy, Writing fiction, Writing short stories and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Research and the fiction writer

  1. Jason says:

    Very insightful post. I’ve always been one of those weird people who loves research. I even loved writing essays in high school. I write children’s stories now, so not a big call for research, but I’m also working on a middle-grade science fiction series that has required some research. Turns out, for me at least, that researching for science fiction is much more difficult.

    • jerrydunne says:

      Hi Jason,
      thanks for the comment.
      Personally I love research because it allows me to learn new things and is much easier than actual writing.
      You’re right about the difficulties involved in researching science fiction. Science fiction is at least as hard as anything else to research. You have to create a new and believable world that must be more rational than fantasty (though fantasy of course must have its own sense of logic and consistency), yet be just as imaginative as fantasy. The other real challenge, of course, is that it must be scientifically based even if the scientific concepts are stretched to breaking point. This can be very difficult to get right without sufficient research into the science side. So I wish you luck with that.

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