Effective Fiction Research

Effective Fiction Research

The question of why research should be a part of the craft of writing fiction I’ll leave for another article. Suffice it to say, there are three reasons at minimum to include the skill of research in your craft. The first and second reasons require an understanding of the reader. It may or may not be surprising to learn that far more non-fiction titles are published and sold every year than fiction. And this should tell you that readers would actually rather be educated than entertained (it may also say something about the quality of the entertainment being sold, but that’s a soap box I’ll resist from stepping atop at the moment). Thus, if you can educate your reader while entertaining them, then you may be able to broaden your readership. Secondly, readers demand a certain level of credibility or authority from their authors, with whom they will be spending so much intimate time.

The third reason requires an understanding of you, the author. Very few of us may be gifted with an imagination of, say, a Stephen King or a Dean Koontz. Everything we need to craft our story may not be stored upstairs. We may and usually must venture outside of our mind to find the raw material to build our worlds, characters, and plots. And truth be told, even if you were King or Koontz, you too might be caught doing your homework from time to time. Research is a core skill of the novelist if for no other reason than to inspire.

So assuming research is, in fact, going to be a tool in our bag, then how can it most effectively be used?

The first thing to understand is that research for fiction can be subtly different than for non-fiction. And the difference ties back to the three reasons for researching fiction in the first place. Fiction is not held to the same standards as non-fiction. Absolute truth is not the goal of the fiction author, nor the expectation of the fiction reader. Metaphoric truth, however, is. As such, there is no requirement to support the research or defend it. In fact, the best fiction is to be written such that the research is invisible to the reader.

With that understanding it may be easier to think of the fiction research method as being more organic, less structured and academic. The whole exercise is really directly for the author’s benefit and no one else’s. The indirect benefit to the reader comes in the form of a credible and densely written story that engages her both intellectually and emotionally.

Therefore, the methods for effective fiction research are as varied and unique as are the authors. For me, I must first develop a premise founded on a rich theme or themes before I can begin to dive into the research. Once I have my premise, though, I begin by identifying the broader subjects that I’ll need to explore for both credibility concerns and for story inspiration. I then give myself a crash course on each subject, assimilating what I learn, what inspires me, and what ideas come as a result. At times this can all be accomplished through reading books, journals, magazines, etc. Other times I must interview subject matter experts, travel to specific locations, or even try a particularly new and foreign activity. Do whatever is required to fill in the gaps in your own knowledge while also following your instincts. If something intrigues you, stumps you, or, heaven forbid, keeps you up at night, then by all means explore to your heart’s content.

I mull this material over and over in my mind until I make it a part of my own experience. Then when it’s time to write I find that the material I’ve gained is there at my fingertips and it comes out naturally in what I say. And this is because I’m not lecturing to the reader, trying to teach them, or even preach to them. I’m just talking to them, telling them a story that also happens to relay a message that has become important to me during my research phase.

To give a simple example, during the writing of my first novel, Cryptid: The Lost Legacy of Lewis & Clark, I realized that in order to make my premise work I needed to graft my story into the history of the reader’s own world. I felt this would be the best way to suspend the reader’s disbelief while they read a thriller that had Sasquatch ravaging the characters in the dark woods of the Olympic National Park. I happened to be reading Stephen E. Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage at the time. Specifically, I had come across entries from Lewis describing their first close encounters with the grizzly. And bingo, just like that, I had found my answer. I could introduce into my story lost journals of Lewis & Clark that described their close encounters with Sasquatch. Because of research, two subjects that appeared to be unrelated now became integral to my plot.

The most difficult thing to learn and accept about the craft of researching fiction is that the process is essentially organic. So your method of research will differ from mine.

It requires faith in yourself and in the craft. All you can do is take that first step. Start by going to the library, surfing the web, or interviewing your ninety-year-old grandmother. And then have the courage to let the research lead you where it may. After all, research is what insures that the readers don’t have all the adventures.

The question of why research should be a part of the craft of writing fiction I’ll leave for another article. Suffice it to say, there are three reasons at minimum to include the skill of research in your craft. The first and second reasons require an understanding of the reader. It may or may not be surprising to learn that far more non-fiction titles are published and sold every year than fiction. And this should tell you that readers would actually rather be educated than entertained (it may also say something about the quality of the entertainment being sold, but that’s a soap box I’ll resist from stepping atop at the moment). Thus, if you can educate your reader while entertaining them, then you may be able to broaden your readership. Secondly, readers demand a certain level of credibility or authority from their authors, with whom they will be spending so much intimate time.

The third reason requires an understanding of you, the author. Very few of us may be gifted with an imagination of, say, a Stephen King or a Dean Koontz. Everything we need to craft our story may not be stored upstairs. We may and usually must venture outside of our mind to find the raw material to build our worlds, characters, and plots. And truth be told, even if you were King or Koontz, you too might be caught doing your homework from time to time. Research is a core skill of the novelist if for no other reason than to inspire.

So assuming research is, in fact, going to be a tool in our bag, then how can it most effectively be used?

The first thing to understand is that research for fiction can be subtly different than for non-fiction. And the difference ties back to the three reasons for researching fiction in the first place. Fiction is not held to the same standards as non-fiction. Absolute truth is not the goal of the fiction author, nor the expectation of the fiction reader. Metaphoric truth, however, is. As such, there is no requirement to support the research or defend it. In fact, the best fiction is to be written such that the research is invisible to the reader.

With that understanding it may be easier to think of the fiction research method as being more organic, less structured and academic. The whole exercise is really directly for the author’s benefit and no one else’s. The indirect benefit to the reader comes in the form of a credible and densely written story that engages her both intellectually and emotionally.

Therefore, the methods for effective fiction research are as varied and unique as are the authors. For me, I must first develop a premise founded on a rich theme or themes before I can begin to dive into the research. Once I have my premise, though, I begin by identifying the broader subjects that I’ll need to explore for both credibility concerns and for story inspiration. I then give myself a crash course on each subject, assimilating what I learn, what inspires me, and what ideas come as a result. At times this can all be accomplished through reading books, journals, magazines, etc. Other times I must interview subject matter experts, travel to specific locations, or even try a particularly new and foreign activity. Do whatever is required to fill in the gaps in your own knowledge while also following your instincts. If something intrigues you, stumps you, or, heaven forbid, keeps you up at night, then by all means explore to your heart’s content.

I mull this material over and over in my mind until I make it a part of my own experience. Then when it’s time to write I find that the material I’ve gained is there at my fingertips and it comes out naturally in what I say. And this is because I’m not lecturing to the reader, trying to teach them, or even preach to them. I’m just talking to them, telling them a story that also happens to relay a message that has become important to me during my research phase.

To give a simple example, during the writing of my first novel, Cryptid: The Lost Legacy of Lewis & Clark, I realized that in order to make my premise work I needed to graft my story into the history of the reader’s own world. I felt this would be the best way to suspend the reader’s disbelief while they read a thriller that had Sasquatch ravaging the characters in the dark woods of the Olympic National Park. I happened to be reading Stephen E. Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage at the time. Specifically, I had come across entries from Lewis describing their first close encounters with the grizzly. And bingo, just like that, I had found my answer. I could introduce into my story lost journals of Lewis & Clark that described their close encounters with Sasquatch. Because of research, two subjects that appeared to be unrelated now became integral to my plot.

The most difficult thing to learn and accept about the craft of researching fiction is that the process is essentially organic. So your method of research will differ from mine.

It requires faith in yourself and in the craft. All you can do is take that first step. Start by going to the library, surfing the web, or interviewing your ninety-year-old grandmother. And then have the courage to let the research lead you where it may. After all, research is what insures that the readers don’t have all the adventures.


Article Source: http://www.redsofts.com/articles/

Eric Penz is the author of Cryptid: The Lost Legacy of Lewis and Clark. Visit his Web site to learn more, http://www.ericpenz.com


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