Research tip #6: Marbling

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


So now you have all your research done and you’re ready to get back to the writing. But you’re writing fiction here, not a research paper — so how do you use this research you’ve done? Sometimes the answer is easy: You were looking for a particular detail, and you found it, and you just plug it in and keep on working. But other times your research will be background — you’d written a quick rough draft but needed to learn a lot more about the time period, or the industry, or the culture, or whatever it is you’re writing about, so you’ve spent days or weeks or even months plowing through piles of research, and now you need to return to that draft of yours and work in what you learned. And this is where things get tricky.

The simple answer is to always focus on the writing. If you learned what you studied, if you absorbed all that research you did, then you should be able to just start revising the text and the details will fall in on their own. But let’s be honest, writing is almost never as easy as shaking our heads and letting the genius sift down. You’re going to have to work at this, and it’s going to have to be precise and intentional.

So let’s set aside the writing for a minute and go bake a cake.

In his screenwriting book, Story Sense, Paul Lucey discusses working research into a story:

A certain amount of your research may be cited in the script, but it should not be dumped on audiences to impress them. Instead, research should be worked into the story in the same way that the history of the characters and the locations is worked in through a process called marbling. This term refers to information that reveals the characters and the plot indirectly, through dialogue and images. When marbling is done skillfully, audiences are hardly aware that they are receiving exposition.

Because we’re writers and therefore probably also book nerds, we might be tempted to think of marbling in terms of paper-dying, the art form in which you swirl inks and dyes on paper to produce wild, psychedelic patterns. But I think this is a poor metaphor, because the result is a disorienting churn of color that does not help anyone perceive either the larger picture or the individual hues. Instead, I think the term “marbling” as used for fiction is best related to marbling in baking. For those of you who’ve never been up to your elbows in flour, marbling in baking refers to swirling two contrasting batters — one light, one dark, usually vanilla and chocolate — into a single cake, so the baked cake comes out looking like marble (or like marbled paper). But bakers know that the secret to a good marbled cake is neither the separation of the flavors nor the blend of flavors, but the complement of flavors: we don’t want to taste chocolate and then vanilla, and we don’t want to taste chocolate-vanilla; we want to taste how chocolate and vanilla play off each other in a single bite.

In fiction, we “marble” our details in such a way that they neither stand out as a distinct list of details (“Look what I learned!”) nor blend in as indistinct jumbles of words. Instead, marbled details should work their way into a story so they complement the story—they show us details not to inform the reader but to inform the story, to provide depth to character, to drive the plot, to set the mood.

And we should never forget that this is the function of our research — to serve as details in a story. This can feel frustrating sometimes in the same way that cooking frustrates some people. You spend hours and hours in the kitchen, tossing up a huge mess and stacking dirty dishes you’ll just have to spend hours cleaning later, but the final result is a single plate of food that someone wolfs down in maybe 20 minutes, and then it’s over. Similarly, when you spend hours or days rubbing your weary eyeballs and your hands have gone dry from flipping pages and you’ve learned an entire history inside and out, it can be terribly frustrating to find that all that work boils down to a single detail, a phrase in a sentence. You are tempted, I bet, to pour on the details, to load in everything you learned just to prove that you did the work. But this is not why we did the research; we’re not out to prove anything, we’re out to tell a story.

Francine Prose, in Reading Like a Writer, puts it this way:

Details are what persuade us that someone is telling the truth — a fact that every liar knows instinctively and too well. Bad liars pile on the facts and figures, the corroborating evidence, the improbable digressions ending in blinds alleys, while good (or at least better) liars know that it’s the single priceless detail that jumps out of the story and tells us to take it easy, we can quit our dreary adult jobs of playing judge and jury and again become as trusting children, hearing the gospel of grown-up knowledge without a single care or doubt.

Yes, your research lends your fiction a certain authority, a sense that you know what you’re talking about, or at least your narrator does. A lot of great authors made sure they did know what they were talking about — when you read Hemingway’s vivid descriptions of lion-hunting in Africa, you know that old Papa Hemingway actually hefted a rifle and trekked out on safari, actually shot at the king of cats himself. But in Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott tells of writing a story about gardening based solely on research and on going to the source (in this case, a horticulturalist as well as dozens of happy home gardeners) and then catching people off guard when they assumed she herself was a gardener. “I’d let them know that I had only been winging it, with a lot of help from people around me. [. . .] ‘You don’t love to garden?’ they’d ask me incredulously, and I’d shake my head and not mention that what I love are cut flowers, because this sounds so violent and decadent [. . .].”

So you find only those details that are necessary, only the research that serves the story, and then you work it in where it’s necessary and only there. In her book Building Fiction, Jesse Lee Kercheval explains how Tim O’Brien (who, to be fair, was indeed a Vietnam veteran, so his details came first-hand) worked in whole lists of specific facts to lend realism to his short story “The Things They Carried.”

As a first lieutenant and platoon leader, Jimmy Cross carried a compass, maps, code books, binoculars, and a .45-caliber pistol that weighed 2.9 pounds fully loaded. He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men. . . .

As a medic, Rat Kiley carried a canvas satchel filled with morphine and plasma and malaria tablets and surgical tape and comic books and all the things a medic must carry, including M&Ms for especially bad wounds, for a total weight of nearly 20 pounds.

The information here accomplishes several things at once: They give the narrator (and O’Brien himself) authority through the specificity of the details — the weight of packs, the caliber of firearm, the curious detail about the “M&Ms for especially bad wounds.” Only someone who’d been there, we would reason, could know details like that. The lists also inform us about the characters, “the cumulative impression they leave of a character’s rank and specialty,” as Kercheval puts it. (Notice that the medic carries comic books, too, which, combined with the M&M detail, tells us something about Rat Kiley the human being as well as Rat Kiley the medic.) And they move the story itself forward — the description of the platoon leader, with his weapons of war and his “responsibility for the lives of his men,” precedes the description of the medic, whose gear helps him heal the wounds of war, and this pairing creates a tension that propels the story forward.

But for the best example of how to use your research in your fiction — how to marble in the details so that they complement the story you’re telling — I will turn to the master, Cormac McCarthy, and his greatest novel so far, the brilliant historical novel Blood Meridian. (For a fascinating discussion of McCarthy’s own research and writing process, check out this rare interview, with John Jurgensen.)

In Blood Meridian, a group of men led by the violently mythic Judge Holden are running from a band of vengeful Native Americans; as one might expect in a Western, they are shooting at each other as they gallop across the West Texas desert, firing so much that the judge’s men run out of ammunition. Actually, they have plenty of bullets and plenty of empty casings and are used to recycling their rounds by recasing their own ammo, but they have run out of gunpowder. So they run to the volcanic mountains to escape, and there on the burning peaks the judge sets about making gunpowder by hand.

The process of making gunpowder involves chemically mixing potassium nitrate (saltpeter), sulfur powder, and charcoal. But these men are on the run, trapped at the top of a volcano — they’re not leisurely tinkering around with a chemistry set. McCarthy did his research, though, and he learned that human urine contains nitrogen and that saltpeter can be made from urine by mixing it with potash (wood ashes). He also must have discovered that sulfur naturally occurs in volcanic regions. And it wouldn’t be hard to come across charcoal at a volcano, either.

I did a little looking myself (okay, a very little — I just hit Wikipedia), and learned that just before the Renaissance, Europeans discovered a way to add liquid to the ingredients and create a kind of gunpowder paste, which they then dried and crushed to form gunpowder. And, according to the Wikipedia article, “gunners also found that it was more powerful and easier to load into guns.”

Perfect! But these men in Blood Meridian are on the run, in the middle of a shootout, fighting for their lives. We don’t have time to pause the action and explain all these technical, alchemical processes. We need gunpowder and we need it now! So McCarthy marbles — he keeps the action moving fiery and relentless even as he describes the powder-making process in grossly vivid detail and reveals volumes of insight into Judge Holden’s feral genius and his devlish nature:

We hauled forth our members and at it we went and the judge on his knees kneadin the mass with his naked arms and the piss was splashin about and he was cryin out for us to piss, man, piss for your very souls for cant you see the redskins yonder, and laughing the while and workin up this great mass in a foul black dough, a devil’s batter by the stink of it and him not a bloody dark pastryman himself I dont suppose and he pulls out his knife and he commences to trowel it across the southfacin rocks, spreadin it out thin with the knifeblade and watchin the sun with one eye and him smeared with blacking and reekin of piss and sulphur and grinnin and wieldin the knife with a dexterity that was wondrous like he did it every day of his life.

(For any chemistry nerds reading, I should point out that most information online explains that making gunpowder takes an incredibly long time, upwards of two days or more, so I know there’s absolutely no way that the judge’s men could concoct makeshift gunpowder on a mountaintop and reload and carry on their fight with the Native Americans in the span of time McCarthy describes in his novel. But we don’t care — the story has us, we are committed, and now we just want these guys to shoot the bullet.)

Tomorrow, a short summation and a list of links to other articles and books you might find useful.


If you haven’t already, please visit my links for charity and aid organizations that are helping Haiti. Also, today I discovered the website for the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, which is another place you can donate (I’ve added it to the existing list as well).  And as always, if you know of any news or any other organizations I can add here, let me know.

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