Basic Research Bitch
I’m writing a novel that starts in 1970, which puts it at fifty plus years away from now (making it a historical novel according to the Historical Novel Society), although I was alive during the era, which might mean it’s contemporary fiction. I am not here to argue that point one way or another, I just wanted to start this letter off by saying thinking about this shit this morning made me feel kind of old.
Whatever genre you want to call it, I’ve had to do research, because I was young enough in the early pages of this book to either not remember or know how certain things looked. I’m also writing about characters much older than myself at the time, so their reality and concerns were different. While I’m not doing a mountain of research, I do get asked from time to time about how I do it, so I thought I’d talk a little bit about it today.
I’m a basic bitch when it comes to research. With the exception of my one (actually, truly) historical novel, Saint Mazie, which, amongst other tasks, involved me tracking down people who knew the original Mazie in real life and also hunting down the one known photograph of her, I don’t have any fancy research strategies.
Actual evidence I did research at least once
My historical details at a minimum accent and add texture to my story, show the layout of the era, to help ground the reader in time, but of course the aesthetics have to be in line with everything else going on in the book. Which is to say: the details must be relevant. Occasionally a found detail or piece of history will also inform the plot of a story. In general, though, my work is almost always character driven first and foremost, and while the headspace of an era is obviously part of that, I start first with their emotional truth and work from there.
Some writers live for the historical details. But you’ll rarely find me in library archives digging deep, although I am not immune to falling down wormholes on the internet. I like to know what the room looks like, and even the color of the wallpaper on the wall, but knowing the pattern of that wallpaper, for example, might not help me. Some people are wallpaper pattern researchers, and I get it. I think there is even a safety people feel when they’re doing research. An amassing of words, ideas, images: how can that be a bad thing? It’s when we can’t stop doing the research and step into the actual writing that it becomes a problem rather than a solution.
(I feel like I can hear someone out there saying, but how do you know when to stop doing research? How do you make yourself stop? And I don’t know how to make anyone do anything, I just know that at some point you have to start writing or the book will never get written. There’s probably something in saying to yourself, “I will only do four hours of research today, and I will write for two hours,” and then adjusting that ratio every few days or week or whatever until you’ve stepped away from the research entirely. You’ve got this, research addict.)
What I love most of all is interviewing people who either lived during the same era or are an expert on a topic. Whenever I talk to someone, they almost always reveal a specific detail I would have never learned otherwise, and that detail often slips into the texture of the book. My most recent example of this is interviewing a medical examiner for my last novel All This Could Be Yours, and having her tell me that she views herself (and her peers) as the last doctor people see on earth. It was so lovely, so honorable, and something I could have only known from speaking to her. I inserted the line in the book.
For the book I’m working on now, one of my characters formed in part out of seeing a particular puffy-sleeved vintage sweater online and wondering what kind of person wore it originally. I have had fun thinking about her evolving fashion as I’ve been outlining the book, and also her feelings about fashion. I imagine I will consult with one of my stylist friends at some point to make sure I’ve landed the correct historical timeline for her looks.
I’ve also interviewed a few people, including a husband and wife I found on the internet. I was looking for someone who studied a particular thing at a particular university in a particular year and I googled those details and somehow, magically, the husband’s resume popped up. He agreed to speak to me, and in conversation I told him I was looking for a woman to speak to as well. It turned out his wife had studied at the same time, too, and had the job my character ended up having in the future, so I ended up having a nice chat with her. She gave me one tiny but incredible detail that changed the nature of the chapter. Those are the luckiest moments, but also ones that make you feel like you’re headed on the right path of your book.
Other things I’ve been researching: how people communicated with each other, what technology was available, what music they were listening to, who was on the cover of magazines of that year, back when being the Time “Man of the Year” really meant something. And what kind of pizza people were eating then — I want to know that, too. What interests the character interests me, but these broad strokes of culture are helpful, too.
I back my way into everything. This is just the way it works for me. Characters first, research second. I’m rarely struck by an era or captivated by a historic event. I am mostly just interested in people, in interactions and motivations. The best part is the people! I want to know just enough about everything and then get to the good part, the actual writing and hanging out with these messy, lovely characters I’ve created and who feel awfully real to me most days.
I’m leaving the comments open today so you can talk about research if you want. I hope you are all hanging in there these days. I know it’s just…too much. But perhaps writing will help a little bit? We’ve got two months to go until #1000wordsofsummer starts. Time to start training.
You are reading Craft Talk, the home of #1000wordsofsummer and also a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). This week’s donation went to the Direct Relief’s aid for Ukraine.
I'm really late on getting to my emails. I love research, but it overwhelms me. There are so many nuances, I go down the rabbit hole and exit the wormhole. I lose my sense of direction in the story because I'm so concerned with authenticity. I've started and stopped a story set in Paris in the early days of German occupation for 20 years because every time I start up again I discover a new detail and boom - right down that rabbit/worm hole again. I've cut the main characters down to 3 but nothing seems to get me past a few pages. Actually, I have so many different scenes written, you think I'd have a novel by now. I was watching "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" the other day - the scene between the two boys talking through the fence. The clothing was accurate, but the what struck me was the realness of the dialog and the connection between the two kids - they could have been anywhere having a conversation like this. Score one for focusing on the characters.
"I’ve also interviewed a few people, including a husband and wife I found on the internet.... He agreed to speak to me..."
What does the conversation look like that gets you from "I found you on the internet because I think you know something I need for a story" to actually talking? How do you frame the query? How often do people in that situation run away/not reply?