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On Researching Your Novel

Must you do on-site research for your novel in order to be “authentic?”

Melissa posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I’m currently reading a book on writing historical fiction in which the author strongly emphasizes researching on location. While I agree with him 100% that on-site research will enrich your story, it’s not always feasible to travel to your stories physical location to do so. What would you say is the second best option available to a writer who wants to authenticate the physical location of a place that he/she has never been?

This question is a good one, whether you’re writing historical fiction or any other kind of fiction. Must you do on-site research?

I remember years ago reading an interview with Tom Clancy in Writer’s Digest. I don’t have that interview anymore, but one thing stood out to me. If my memory is correct, in that interview, Tom said that he had never been on a submarine until after he wrote his book THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER. But he had talked to lots of people who had.

Since THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER was notable for its highly authentic feel of life on a nuclear sub, this surprised a lot of people. How did Tom make his readers believe that they were experiencing life on a sub, if he hadn’t experienced it himself?

The answer is not merely that Tom talked to a lot of people. Tom also asked those people the right questions. His books are packed with details — things that make you believe you’re right there. I’ve never been on a sub, so I can’t speak from experience on whether those details are right. But the very fact that the details are there makes you FEEL like they’re correct. In principle, a writer could make it all up, and yet make it feel real by simply showing lots of details of the environment. But more importantly, the writer must make it matter to the reader by finding the emotive impact those details have on the characters.

I’ve never been to Mars, and yet I wrote two novels set on Mars with my co-author John Olson. John and I studied up on what Mars is like, based on the best information we had. Then we imagined what it would be like living in a small habitation module on Mars, recycling the water, dealing with the peroxide-laced Martian dust, getting on the nerves of the other astronauts, living in constant fear of a depressurization event that would mean certain death, and suffering the effects of hypervigilance as a result. Then we took that imagination and made it real in the form of sensory details and everyday actions in the lives of our astronauts. In the end, the physical details were less important than the emotive impact those details had on our characters.

I’ve never been to ancient Jerusalem, but I wrote three novels set there. I have been to modern Jerusalem, and I spent an entire day studying a model of what the ancient city looked like. I also wandered around the old city, getting a feel for the color of the stones, the blue of the sky, the size of the city. I also spent absurd amounts of time reading the writings of people who lived in that time and place, learning the way they expressed ideas and how they interacted with each other. I tried to imagine what they cared about and what they feared and hoped for. Then I took all that and put it into concrete details. Again, the actual details were less important than the emotive effect they had on my characters.

Are there factual errors in my novels? Almost certainly. The evidence available for both Mars and ancient Jerusalem is fragmentary. But you can’t write a novel using fragmentary descriptions and details. You have to fill things in as best you can to create a coherent picture. Some of what you fill in will be wrong. That is one of life’s little tragedies, and the smart writer will accept that and not worry about.

Create an imaginary world that fits the facts as best you know them, but which fills in the holes in such vivid detail that the reader can’t tell the difference between what you know and what you imagine. Remember, it’s a novel you’re writing, not a documentary.

I won’t go into all the tools you have at your disposal for doing research. That depends a lot on what time and place you’re writing about, what information exists, and what form the information is in. It can be very helpful to find experts who know the world of your novel better than anyone else. Don’t be surprised, though, if you ask 3 experts and get 4 opinions. That’s the nature of the beast. It’s better that you form a coherent picture in your own mind of the world of your novel, and that you create that world in vivid detail for your reader. Then translate that coherent picture into an emotional impact on your characters.

Repeat after me: It’s a novel, not a documentary. It’s a novel, not a documentary. It’s a novel, not a documentary.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.