Writing Secrets: Research 101 for fiction writers

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

We tend to associate research with non-fiction writing, and imagination with fiction.

But in fact, both are required for both forms of writing. They’re closer than you might think. As writer David Peace says: In order to create a credible reality in non-fiction, “art, or artifice” is required.

And, if it is to hold us and immerse us in the world of its story, fiction needs research at a number of levels. Imagination is simply not enough.

Firstly, you need to get your facts right. As you know (and should never forget) a reader’s suspension of disbelief is willing. Don’t abuse it.

I once stopped reading a book because the writer described the route from the airport in a city I know well – and it was wrong. She changed it, I think, to allow certain iconic landmarks to be visible to the visitor.

Even science fiction or a work of magic realism needs a good grounding in reality. If things are strange, the rest needs to be real and down-to-earth, and tangible. The parts of the strange world need to work together logically.

Secondly, you need more than a vague idea about what you’re writing about because good writing is all about specifics. If your character is changing a head gasket, you need to provide the specific details that will make this real.

I once learned how to make a pamphlet bomb, in detail. You might not use it all, but you need to include enough detail to make it believable.

Thirdly, if you don’t know exactly how to do what you’re writing about, your writing will become stiff and wooden.

If you don’t know your way around a town, you will become stilted when describing your character’s route through the traffic. You need to feel confident of your specifics, to feel confident of your writing.

Online takes you only so far. Perhaps you can learn to change a head gasket through Google – I haven’t tried. But there are occupations you won’t find. In any case, talk to people. Persuade your friendly local mechanic to show you how. It will give you ideas, which will add depth to your characters.

There’s no correct procedure for approaching people. Just ask. If they knock you back, try someone else. Many people are flattered – after all, you’re not doing an investigative piece. For once, their passion, their passtime, the work they spend their days immersed in, is of interest to someone else. Most people love to speak about themselves and what they do.

Don’t be timid, but don’t be arrogant either.

I have cajoled priests, farmers, psychologists (and many other people) to spend hours talking me through their daily lives, what they do and what made them who they are.

It was a fascinating part of the process, and I loved it. It opened my eyes in a way that that wouldn’t have been possible had I simply met them socially – or indeed, Googled “Studying to be a priest”.  And in fact, most of my research subjects have become life-long friends. Once you walk in someone’s shoes, it’s almost impossible not to.

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