May 2, 2014

More on Novel Research

On Wednesday, I wrote about the different stages of novel research. Today I have a few more research tips to pass on, based on what I've figured out through many drafts of many manuscripts.

The single most important thing I've learned about research is to record every piece of information the first time I discover it. While revising THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, I wasted untold hours looking up facts that I almost certainly verified two drafts ago but couldn't be sure of. Now everything I research, I immediately type or copy into a file, along with a reference to where the information came from, whether it's a URL or a page in a book. Treat your research as though you're going to have to provide footnotes to your story, and you'll be ready when you doubt yourself later or you get questions from a critique partner or editor.

Be organized with all these research notes you're diligently keeping. For DAMAGE, my computer has one folder of files divided up by major topic, including "earthquakes", "aerospace industry", and "babies". Additionally, in my SuperNotecard story notes, each chapter has a card with references for specific facts in that chapter. This slightly obsessive method of documentation is what works for me, but you'll have your own personal record-keeping strategy.

As with any research, when you're acquiring information for a novel, you need to consider all the types of sources that are available to you. Primary sources from within a time, place, or culture are extremely valuable but sometimes easy to forget about. A cool but tricky thing about fiction research is that other fiction can often be used as a source. A novel by an author with firsthand experience may be even more revealing than a work of nonfiction if you're looking for everyday details of an experience you can't have yourself. Novels, movies, and TV shows that are about a certain era, location, or industry but were written from outside may also be useful, but tread carefully and consider the work's reputation and biases.

In general, be thoughtful about sources. Not everything on the internet is true, and the same goes for books. If a fact seems questionable to me, I try to verify it against a second, independent source. Because part of DAMAGE takes place in the 1960s, I'm always eager to watch movies made during that time to notice details like a washing machine in a family's kitchen or people smoking, well, everywhere. But movies aren't a pure reflection of reality, and I have to keep that in mind. Similarly, while the television series MAD MEN has a reputation for extreme accuracy in its 60s-era period details, I recognize that it's a work of fiction by writers with a twenty-first century perspective, and I only trust it up to a point.

Finally, remember that the research you invest in a novel is to improve your story, not to insert directly into your story. When you become intimately familiar with the world of your novel, that will show in how well and seamlessly you bring it to life. Rarely is this accomplished with paragraphs of dry explanation or awkward dialogue in which characters tell each other facts about their setting. Resist any urges in that direction, and keep your meticulously organized research notes to yourself. (Or maybe you can share them online as background information or bonus material for your readers.)

That's the end of my novel research advice, at least for now. I still have a whole stack of library books to get through.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At io9, Charlie Jane Anders offers 10 Can't Miss, Surefire Secrets Of Torturing Fictional People: "Suffering that happens because of your characters' decisions is way more interesting -- and often more painful, because of remorse. A lot of the most powerful fictional torment comes as a result of people's terrible decisions, but it's also really poignant to see someone stick his or her neck out for justice, and get dinged."

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