Why Writers Are Researchers, Too

posted in: A Writer's Life | 2

Writers are researchers, too. In fact, writers have to be Jacquelines (or Jacks) of many trades. Wordsmiths, grammarians, artists of a certain sort, interviewers, investigators/researchers.  Even counselors. Of these, I’m most comfortable being a researcher. I did  research for graduate school in psychology, and for jobs I held after that.

After all those years, digging for facts and information is in my blood. Now, anytime I hear about something that makes me curious, I do a Google search.

But as a lover of “facts” and “reality,” I have to watch it when I use the fruits of my research in writing a novel.

Details and “facts” can give a story that convincing ring of authenticity. But every author, even one who writes fiction, has to go after the “truth,” if she’s writing about something she doesn’t know from experience. A time not her own, a place she’s never been to, or an event or activity she’s never taken a part in.

As a reader, wouldn’t a story sound more believable when the writer describes time, events, and place as if she was there? Or, if her characters speak the dialect and follow the social and cultural customs of where and when the story is set?

No question the Internet has made a lot of information available at everyone’s fingertips. Literally. But that boon could also be a bane.

 

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The Internet yields a lot of good information.  Also a lot that’s crap. That’s inevitable and probably natural when we’re given freedom to be heard or to say whatever we want to say. But that also behooves us to be critical or vigilant about what the internet yields. Seek other sources like books or interviews with people who can tell us about the time, place, or events we include in our stories.

Many writers assert facts and details are not as important as showing characters’ reactions to them—what one writer calls “emotive impact.” Fiction is, after all, entertainment. Readers may be more interested in the story and its characters’ experience than how accurate details are. It may matter more how—instead of what—information is presented.

A writer could also get too caught up trying to sound authentic. She may give too many, even unnecessary, details and end up with what I call story constipation. “Constipation” refers to “a state in which the usual flow of something is blocked or obstructed” (Encarta Dictionary). Precisely what could happen to plotlines at the mercy of too many details.

You may not be compelled to do research if you’re a science fiction or fantasy writer. You can create your own world and your own time, within the limits of your imagination. But a fantasy writer I once interviewed claimed her stories and characters are still based on reality. Her alien or fantastic characters still feel, behave and, maybe, think like humans. They’re plagued by the same conflicts and react as we, ordinary humans, do.

I can understand that. To draw readers into our stories, we still need to write about something they can connect to. Usually that would be about things, issues, concerns or feelings we know.

Here’s a good guide for getting the best out of research and making them work for the story.

2 Responses

  1. Great Article – I too am a writer, and I agree with a lot of what you say here. Of course you need to make your details authentic because if you get things wrong, your readers will surely let you know.. So how to go about that? The ideal situation is to write about a place and time you know inside out or write what you know, unfortunately that’s not always possible. The alternative is do a LOT of research. Go to the setting of your book if possible, and take notes. You can research on the web, but use multiple sources. Wikipedia isn’t always accurate and is occasionally way off. Go to museums, family history centers etc. ‘
    I also like your comment about not using every fact and figure you have in effort to prove you know what you’re talking about. When you can insert an idea naturally great, but dont feel like you have to use all your info just so it won’t go to waste. Better that you keep some of your vast array of knowledge to yourself, than overwhelming and boring your readers. This is a great post. Thanks for sharing.

    • Wow! Thank you Ms. libraryrylady for such helpful comments, especially about readers letting you know. Much luck to you on your writing. I think I’ll check out your site.

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