How much research should a writer do? A few weeks ago I was talking with someone who said he doesn’t do any research – not on the places or the time periods he sets his novels in. Another writer I know is planning a trip to Florida because she set her new story near Cape Canaveral, but has never been there. Unless everything you write is based on who you are and where you’ve been, there are going to be things that are outside of your experience. That’s when it’s best to call on other people’s experiences and knowledge. One of the benefits of writing groups can be access to people who know a lot of things that you don’t. Traditional researching methods like reading about relevant subjects or going out to see see or try things for yourself are also helpful.
I’m sure there’s a researching spectrum across fiction writers. Some don’t, some do, and some probably get far more involved than necessary. It depends on the author and on the subject matter.
I probably over-research merely because I’m fascinated by details. When did refrigerators become a common household item or at what university can my character obtain a degree in parapsychology? I am very good friends with Google Search and have a lot of books on topics I never would have expected to get so interested in. Since I tend to be interested in a blend of supernatural/historical/fantasy, I find myself researching a wide variety of things from Victorian asylums to the theoretical physics of time travel to the ecology of wolves.
So what do other people research? How important do you think it is when crafting your story?
As usual, “it depends.”
First and foremost of course it depends on the story. Some of my stories take place in worlds that don’t exist outside my head and the text of the story or stories in which they appear. For these, there are story-worlds that mimic our own world, but are fictional insofar as they don’t take place in Boston, or Newburyport, or Delhi, London, etc. They take place in Chapford or Dukesport or somesuch which will often be recognizable as derived from Springfield or Hartford or Fitchburg, etc. But I try to be careful to limit the degree to which they resemble those sources, because I don’t want to spend six months discovering the schedule of the Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway interurban run from Fitchburg to Leominster in July of 1949.
In the Barkis stories, though they are in fictional locales, those locales are contextualized with the “real” world. Evangeline Beaudette drives a ’48 Lincoln Continental so when I refer to the V-12 Zephyr engine, it’s gotta be real, but that level of investigation hardly qualifies as “research.”
In “Bootsie” (which takes place in the Barkis world) however, I did some limited research (internet only) in support of a major plot device – the smugglers’ tunnels leading from the waterfront up to some of the mansions on High Street, (and the fact that the Braves had one of their best years in Boston in ’48).
What I didn’t need to research was what it felt like to live in a mixed blue & white collar neighborhood in a New England mill town in the years after WWII.
And in stories like “Tuscarora” I needed a little supportive credibility about what the ship of the title might look like – generally – but beyond that, what’s to research? And Budge’s world is a bit tricky, since it isn’t really specified, but it’s supposed to look and feel enough like ours to make a reader wonder – and different enough to foil a firm conclusion.
That’s the joy of – as it’s been called a time or two – “making shit up.”