Re-researching fiction: The new, expanded edition!

For more on researching for fiction, go to the main research page


A while ago I wrote a blog entry on the research I was doing for my NaNoWriMo novel, a twisted little Civil War novel set in southwestern Louisiana during the last of the war years. At the time I was just counting some of the cool things I’d learned while writing the first draft of that book, like how to build an Acadian shack or what sort of bait to use when catching crawfish, but I also made a few comments on the apparently contradictory act of researching for fiction. Then a friend of mine, Midwestern rock star and fellow writer Ryan Werner, started a conversation about writing with a friend of his (we writers are a molecular bunch, clustering together in little clumps of “I know someone who knows someone” and hoping something alchemical results). This friend of Ryan’s is thinking about writing an historical novel and wondered if Ryan had any thoughts; what Ryan thought is that he despises research (I’m euphemizing — Ryan was a bit more emphatic than “despises”), but then he remembered my blog post, and he sent me an e-mail asking if I might elaborate. So here we are. Now you know who to blame.

There’s a lot of good advice out there. There’s a lot of bad advice, too, and half the time the good advice sounds almost identical to the bad. What works and what doesn’t depends on what sort of writer you are and on what sort of researcher you are, so like anything in fiction writing, no one tip or exercise is going to solve your writing problems for you. You live and you learn — or, more accurately, you learn through living, through the practice itself.

That said, it often does help to get a few pointers at the outset, a kind of nudge in one direction or another, and who cares if it’s the right direction, because at least you’re moving.  So over the next several posts I’m going to start discussing a variety of tips, some of which work for me, some of which don’t — but they worked for someone, so maybe they’ll help you, too.

But first, some general advice:

The first thing any writer of historical fiction needs to do is sort out his or her priorities, and I promise you, no matter what sort of writer you are, your first priority is to write. That means now. Start a draft, even if it’s terrible, even if you’ll wind up chucking 99% of it. There is an old and oft-quoted (and oft-disputed) axiom in the writing world, that we should write what we know. On the surface that sounds antithetical to researching for historical fiction — if you don’t know it in the first place, some purists would have it, you shouldn’t bother looking it up. But what that axiom really means is that you should stay true to your own vision, and whatever time period you’re writing about, it will inevitably conform to your world view now.

Or, I’ll put it another way. There’s a long-standing critical truism that all science fiction, however distantly futuristic it pretends to be, is a commentary on contemporary times (Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, which I’m reading now, is not so much a novel about the drug culture of a near future but a commentary on the drug culture of the times Dick wrote it, just for example). But there’s an adverse example, too:  In Jorge Luis Borges’s excellent short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” we read about a contemporary author who, having read Cervantes’s Don Quixote, sets out to write a modern version of it.  Instead he winds up recreating the text verbatim, so that Pierre Menard’s Quixote is utterly indistinguishable from the original. Yet — the story tells us — critics rave about the genius of Menard’s version because it has become a reflection on all that has changed in the centuries since the original Quixote was written. In some respects Borges is poking fun at the pomposity of academia, but there is a more serious point underlying this, that any historical fiction we might write today must become relevant to contemporary readers and therefore must reflect a contemporary perspective, however accurate or inaccurate the resulting historicity might be.

So it is always a good idea to begin by writing cold, without research. Get the story down, however sloppy or short or inaccurate, and then go back and correct the historical details through research. If you begin with the research, you will wind up writing a report, which no one — not even college professors — really wants to read. But if you begin with the story, you will have something engaging and exciting to build the historical details into, and that’s what will make for good fiction.

Tomorrow:  Tip #1–Marry a librarian!


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