The other day a friend and I wondered whether a certain writer would make deeper exploration into some topics in her work in progress. “I certainly hope so,” my friend said. “But doing research is a curse to some people.”
Say what? Despite my periodic reluctance (like when I’d rather sleep), I know that I must conduct inquiries into as much subjects as possible, no matter how long it takes. I want my historical fiction, my biographies, even my contemporary fiction to be authentic, believable, to have worth. I sure don’t want my books to read like lies. OK. I admit it. I like research.
It’s OK to paraphrase a little bit of material and place it in one’s books, within reason. But can — or should — you pull all your info from other people’s material, rewrite it and call it your own? I think that’s lazy. I’m just saying.
Examining primary material — old newspapers, journals, diaries, letters (even on the Internet within reason), traveling to places of origin when possible, interviewing folks — aren’t these tasks and more still performed by writers who are serious about their work?
I ask because a nubie (and self-centered) writer told me, “I hate to do that. I hate to read. I hate history. It’s easier to just get it from somebody else’s stuff.”
Hmmm. I even looked up “research” quotations on the Internet to find folks who’d help me argue my point. Playwright Wilson Mizner said, “If you steal from one author it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many it’s research.”
I’d never heard of Wilson Mizner, but his quote made sense.
Writer and folklorist Zora Neal Hurston, whose work I’m quite familiar with, said, “Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.”
Well, what do you think? How much research do you do? Is it worth your time, weary eyes, and hard work? Or not?
ELEANORA E. TATE is a children’s book author who has won numerous awards, including a CBC/NCSS Notable Children’s Trade Book in the field of social studies for Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.! and a Parent’s Choice Gold Seal Award for The Secret of Gumbo Grove.
Eleanora is retired from Hamline’s faculty.
I like to do the research. Research adds so many new dimensions to your work; gives you so much good stuff to play with; gives you a sense of surprise as you compile it. It keeps your story from sounding like everybody else's story. And it gives me a chance to get all nerdy about a topic that I am nuts about. What's more, well-done research, when added to the story, is like well-done worldbuilding in a fantasy novel, adding another convincing layer to the world to make it a 'vivid and continuous dream.'
Though you have to be careful not to use research as an excuse to avoid working on your actual MS, too!
Melinda, what are some topics that make you nerdy?
Author Evelyn Coleman has some lengthy insights about her own research and the absence of others on Facebook after she read my entry here. She also goes into detail about how she gathered material for some of her American Girl books.
Thanks for writing, Melinda!
I can get thrown off course when I over-research, turning a story into a history book with characters instead of being true to my own story. That said, I often have people ask me "How long did it take you to research A Voice for Kanzas?" As though I had a "start" and "end" date for this. I have to tell them, "I researched every single day as I wrote it." I always felt like I had a historian looking over my shoulder, ready to point out anachronisms. I'm gratified that so many of the reviews comment on the accuracy of the historical material.
My contemporary novels have required their own type of research, lots of it mighty nice to do. I will soon go to Canada to check out various settings. I will be, for example, visiting various parks on the shore of Lake Ontario in order to pick out the one that will work best for an important noontime conversation. Honest Mr. Taxman–this IS research.
"Poking and prying with a purpose"–I love that!
A presenter at an AWP panel I attended a few years ago distinguished several kinds of research we creative writers can do–cultural, emotional, sensory, genre, etc. Very helpful.
I particularly like the ideas of "sensory" research and "genre" research.
By visiting places (such as shores in parks in Ontario!)and attending to the sensory stimuli, we increase our sensory knowledge and can more vividly render those places for our readers.
By reading in the genres we're writing in, we can learn the challenges posed by those particular genres (and have some help in deciding what to pull from our "to read" piles–adding some purpose to our poking and prying!).
Debra, our comment "a history book with characters" is spot on. How many times have we struggled through books that are like this?
Marsha, lucky lady, to conduct research at Lake Ontario.Going to the place can make such a difference in how vividly a reader can "see" your work.
Andy, different "kinds of research" is unique, don't you think? That's an eye opener
that should be helpful to many writers.
Thanks Eleanora! That sentence I uttered that made my family look at me like I'd grown a horn, now seems very intelligent. "But I HAVE to go to Wales to see Dylan Thomas's grave. It's research."