Most writers have heard the old adage to “write what we know.” Research — in its many forms — can help us expand what we know in a way that improves the story and influences us as storytellers and as people.
For example, research that reveals the geography, history, and culture of a place can inspire characters, scenes, and situations in contemporary and historical fiction. Documents, databases, and even weather reports can be worth checking out. Two years ago at MagNet in Toronto, several speakers talked about articles beginning with a hunch or intuition, backed up with solid research. That same intuition works overtime in genres like science fiction, for example, where authors like Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, or H. G. Wells have been credited with inspiring our present.
At that MagNet conference, Glen McGregor of the Ottawa Citizen said data research can confirm the obvious, reveal the unexpected, and uncover stories even the subjects didn’t know were there. This certainly applies to nonfiction and creative nonfiction. For example, a series of letters found in an attic led Merilyn Simonds to write The Convict Lover, finalist for the 1996 Governor General’s Award. Research can also inspire fiction, like The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, a best-selling novel that opens by professing its accurate descriptions of art, architecture, documents, and secret rituals.
As a journalist as well as fiction and nonfiction writer, I’m naturally inspired by intuition and research. For the past five years, I’ve been working on a historical fantasy novel “Hawk” based in 1282 Wales. I’ve felt compelled to research the details of the time, as well as the culture, the geography, and the language. Through this research, I’ve been working on creating scenes with a sense of emotional as well as historical accuracy.
At a recent writers’ group meeting, our discussion turned to a question about research: how much is enough? How much research does the reader need, and when does the research become a clutter of detail?
I think the answer to this question is relative, based on the type of scene you’re writing, and possibly the learning styles and nature of the writer. Every detail has to serve the work, or it doesn’t belong there. In other words, even when I find a particular piece of information fascinating, I may only need one character instead of four, or a detail of the setting instead of a panoramic view.
The book Digging Deeper: A Canadian Reporter’s Research Guide suggests developing a research plan to outline such aspects as what kind of information I need and where it can be found. I’ve found that a research plan for fiction, like an outline, tends to expand and change over time, until it no longer fits its original parameters.
With “Hawk,” I’ve spent years combing through books and articles, requesting multiple interlibrary loans, consulting experts through interviews, searching Internet sites like Castles of Wales, and other Internet research. I also enjoy following up with primary research on-site. I’ve travelled to Wales and searched out several castles, including Harlech, Aberystwyth, Criccieth (see photo), Caernarfon, Conwy, Dolwyddelyn, Dinbych (Denbeigh), Beaumaris (twice), and Castell-y-Bere (see photo). As well, I’ve taken a Welsh language course with my daughter, and we’ve fallen in love with the towns and countryside of North and West Wales. Not to mention the sea.
I’m enjoying the opportunities to find out how much research is enough to fully realize my novel. The best of what I’ve discovered has led to many unexpected scenes, bits of action, and character detail. As well, I’ve been able to present my research in various ways, and I’m hoping to write more about my experiences in travel articles and possibly a nonfiction book.
What about you? Do you have a sense of when enough is enough in terms of your research? Does the research sometimes lead to other types of books, articles, or activities? Please leave a comment and let’s discuss it.
Marie Powell is the author of 13 children’s books with Scholastic Canada and Amicus Publishing, as well as short stories and poems appearing in such literary magazines as subTerrain, Room, and Transition. As a freelance professional writer, her articles appear in some 70 trade and consumer magazines across the country. She is currently at work on a historical fantasy novel, as well as other works of fiction.