Monday, April 27, 2009

Research Tactics

One of the things I've discovered through writing are the myriad ways in which my interests in history tie into the novels I create. In the many blogs I read, writers bemoan the frequency with which their creative efforts aren't recognized as "work" by non-writers, but are instead dismissed as a "hobby."

I empathize with this frustration, though I'm fortunate to have family and friends who understand the blood, sweat, and tears that go into writing. Part of the heavy lifting that happens as I write is the research involved in constructing a living, breathing world. To have a well-crafted tale requires significant investment of time and detective work well beyond one's own writing. Each writer creates his or her own methods to get from blank page to finished manuscript.

I began to mull over this process when I read Neil Gaiman's blog entry yesterday. When queried about his research for The Graveyard Book, he mentioned Carlo Ginzburg's The Night Battles. Upon reading this citation I hooted in triumph - I teach this text in my upper level history courses when discussing the intersection of religion and the occult in early modern societies. But I also began to wonder about the whys and wherefores of research for novels - and even more than the whys, the whens.

When and how do you research?

My novels evolve from characters and scenes that seize me, and when I say "seize" I'm not exaggerating. I spend a lot of time daydreaming and often a new character will appear in my mind, demanding all of my attention, with whatever thought, feeling, or problem he or she is facing and the threads of a book begin to weave a pattern in my mind. The novel is the finished tapestry woven from those first threads.

In my writing research adds fine detail to the tapestry and assists my characters in their movement through the plot. My characters hand me research questions to answer, I have yet to encounter a writing project where the birth of a novel was predicated on research. In my current project, the protagonist struggles with her rigidly-structured life, which sent me hunting for philosophies of governance and the natural world. At the end of the day Thomas Hobbes became a major figure in my writing, but he wasn't there at the beginning of the story.

Research gives flesh to the bones, but the essence of the story existed first.


  1. In terms of my writing, I'm kind of a shoddy researcher, actually. I depend a lot on the people I trust to critique and edit.

    As a reader, though, I find myself stopping and looking things up all the time so I can fully understand the historical context. It's weird ... sort of makes me feel like a hypocrite or like I sell my readers short while I ensure the best for myself. Definitely something to ponder ...

    : )

  2. I am a history nut (got my first degree in history before I switched to English) so when it comes to researching my book, I'm a bit on the nit picking side. Meaning, I will research every possible detail. I once spent days researching toilets because I didn't want to put one in my turn of the century setting if they were still using chamber pots in that part of the country.

    It's a good thing I enjoy research or I'd drive myself nuts :) Great post!