Researching for a Novel

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Seven


Penka, the Green Sea-Cat monkey, plays with a book which was given to him as a Christmas present by zoo-keepers at Varna Zoo

Nearly all professional writers preform a certain amount of research as they prepare and polish their work for publication. Research, especially for a novel, is taken as a given in Fiction Land and all lazy naysayers are swiftly struck down by the fiery sword of researching righteousness, which may be wielded by critics, creative writing professors, or cranky veteran authors who love to decry the googlefication of research and how all our brains are slowly regressing to a jellyfish-like goo as modern technology chips away at our ability to think critically, much less properly research a serious novel.

Which may be true, but do they have to rub it in? Christ! Don’t we all have enough problems, such as remembering BOTH our online logins and passwords? And getting our tweets posted while we’re driving on the freeway? Or getting our nude pics texted while we’re officiating weddings? Or trying to catch up on all twenty seasons of our beloved reality TV shows about people doing stuff and yelling about stuff? Do these stodgy old blowhards really need to point out how online research is insufficient and shallow and a mockery of all that is good and right in the world? Goddamn it, go write Moby Dick 2 already, you James A. Michener wannabe killjoy motherfuckers! Let the rest of us rot and pretend Wikipedia is reasonably accurate already. God. There’s the door.[1]

If you’re a big academic nerd type (which, let’s face it, is highly likely if you’re reading this here book on writing) you’ll likely be quite at home in the library and comfortable with text-based research in general. However, if you’re the type of person who didn’t exactly enjoy school, much less academia, the sort of Joe or Jill who hated writing academic papers, you may be dreading researching anything for your story and feel strongly compelled to just wing it and let the chips fall where they may. Screw it, you’ll say to the hand puppet you’ve made out of an old sock (because you can’t afford proper therapy because you’re a writer now), I’m going to write this book and let my editors worry about the little details. I’m a big picture author! My true work is tunneling into the heart of darkness that lies within us all, not researching the mating habits of the spiny lumpsucker or the pleasing fungus beetle!

Going to the library? you screech.


Well, you don’t have to research jack squat if you don’t want to and you might even manage to pull it off for a book or two. Yet, like everything else when it comes to writing, research laziness will come back to bite you in the ass sooner or later and you’ll come to regret it down the road. Research can be a powerful tool for a writer and choosing to avoid it, or half-ass it, is akin to going into battle missing a key component of your armor. A solidly built fictional universe relies on concrete details and our own reality already provides said details in droves, creating an instant link between author and reader. If you can name and describe something relatively unknown to a wider audience it gives you additional authority. This is why we’re oddly comforted by medical specialists when they casually throw out terms we don’t understand—you’d be alarmed by any heart surgeon that couldn’t name the individual parts of a heart, right?

One thing that helps make researching your novel or short story more palatable (and seems extremely obvious once you dig into it) is investigating topics you’re personally interested in learning more about. It’s possible you’ll come to be engrossed in any topic you take on, from property zoning laws to eighteenth century British law, but if you’re already resistant to the idea of research in general, you might as well make it as fun as possible. Why not, right? When I wrote The Suicide Collectors I was interested in the psychology behind suicide, when I wrote Wormwood, Nevada I was interested in meteors, and when I wrote And the Hills Opened Up I was interested in wild west-era mining towns. I incorporated topics I was already interested in—I wove my own passions into the fabric of each world I was creating and sat back as the facts helped inform the fiction.


            I take a scattershot approach to research that seems to fit my scattershot brain. I utilize my local library in the same spirit as a spider uses its web: I request every book that looks remotely useful/connected to a subject and skim through each one as it arrives, retaining the ones that look promising and returning the others straight off. If I really find a book useful, I buy a copy to keep on hand for the novel’s entire gestation period and beyond. I don’t read every book cover to cover, but when I hit hot spots of information I slow down and take notes in my writer’s notebook. I collect raw information, sure, but what I’m really looking for are details that paint a vibrant picture in my head and could possibly enhance the fictional dream I’m striving to create. I haven’t taken a formal poll or anything, but judging from the interviews I’ve read[2] most writers usually only end up utilizing only one or two percent of the raw research they generate, yet most claim this small percentage ends up being crucial to their narrative.

I also draw maps of the towns and cities I’m creating in my writer’s notebook, as well as floorplans of the story’s main buildings. My drawing skills seemed to have peaked when I was in the seventh grade but even my crappiest drawings still get the job done—these sketches are for my own personal use and I’m not trying to win any beauty contests. I find going into a story (particularly an advanced draft) with a concrete sense of where everyone and everything in the story is located helps me paint a more vivacious picture and keep track of all the shit that’s going on. They also help me figure out where my characters should go next—what part of the map remains unexplored? What part of the map seems most interesting, or most likely to have an important, reoccurring role?

I’ve been addressing literal research[3] so far in this essay, but there’s a less factual type of research I engage in as well, a kind of mental reconnaissance that has more to do with dreaming the story I’m working on into creation. This involves reading poetry, non-fiction, surfing the internet, watching movies and TV, idly listening to music, talking with folks, exercising, camping, hiking, walking around the city, going to concerts, and generally forming mental connections that will hopefully grow into something larger as I continue to work on the project. A writer doesn’t have time to devour every form of media (nor would such all-out consumption be something particularly desirable, even if it were possible) but the general hope is that if your radar is up and you’re doing your best to be a citizen of the world this engagement will shine through in your work and make it that much more engaging to your readers. I’ve read a lot of late-career books by famous authors who obviously thought they’d grown bigger than the world itself and could therefore ignore it and still produce a compelling novel but nope: inevitably the novel was a big steaming pile of hubristic crap.

Researching a novel or short story doesn’t need to be dull, but it does involve labor. Research is another part of the Grind and a particularly unsung part at that. You’ll feel an urge after doing so much legwork to throw as much of your research into the text as you possibly can but I strongly urge restraint at this point. Remember, your goal is not to hammer your reader over the head with facts and figures but instead to blend all those notes you’ve taken into the fabric of your story. Research can serve as inspiration, cosmetic enhancer, and a type of authentic foundation, but in fiction it should never serve as a substitute for a true story, one with absorbing characters and a plot that compels the reader to keep turning that page.

[1] No wait-it’s actually a trap! You just walked into my closet, fucker.

[2] When I was starting out I was really into reading author interviews but the longer I write the less interest they hold for me. I don’t know if this is because I’m able to detect a familiar pattern in nearly every interview, which makes them less potentially revelatory (and thus less interesting) or if because I’ve basically figured out what works for me as a writer and I feel sorted out, more or less—once you’ve been driving a car for a while you don’t really feel the urge to sit around and exchange driving tips with other drivers.

[3] By the way, go ahead and email experts in various fields if you feel a hankering for some inside information about a subject—if you’re polite and professional about it I’d wager you’d get a useful reply. Experts love to talk about what they’re passionate about and you might even end up making a useful friend out of the exchange.

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