People have asked me how much research I do when I’m working on a story. It’s hard to quantify something like that.
For me, research is useful, but I don’t like to be tied to what I’ve read. For example, some of my characters are based on real people. Do I read their biographies before I write? Yes. I read everything I can get my hands on, especially first hand accounts. Letters and journals. Biographical accounts from contemporaries. If the character is an author, I will read everything that person wrote. I immerse myself in the music, art, and culture of the society of the time. It’s important to me to make the character believable.
However, I don’t like feeling tied to those facts as I create my story. I use that biographical information to help me understand their personalities, their quirks, their motivations. But I always keep in mind that I am not writing non-fiction. My story is just that. A story. It’s fiction. I am using that real person to add verisimilitude to the tale. The appearance of reality, not the absolute truth.
Character is key. I want to understand the person in as much depth as possible.
If I am doing my job well, the reader will be swept along into a believable storyworld inhabited by realistic, fascinating, and relatable characters who seem like people the reader could meet and recognize on the street.
John Keats once said “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us,” and I think that sentiment is equally true for fiction. I never want my fiction to feel like a history lesson. Instead, I strive to use that historical background to add richness and depth to the story and its characters, rather than to teach the reader about this or that historical figure.
So, yes. I do a great deal of research to prepare for my writing, but I don’t leave the books open and refer to them constantly as I go.
My method once I’ve decided on a subject I want to explore in my story is to read and absorb as much as I can on the topic. I’ve taken a forensic course in order to understand more about crime scenes and forensic procedures, for example. I’ve read through medical textbooks and read through books on folklore and history. I’ve traveled to the locations I know I’m going to describe. I’ve even used Google maps’ street view to check my understanding of the environment I’ll use as my setting. Once I’ve finished my research, I close the books and set them aside on my desk. They are there for reference if I need to add a specific date or name or detail, but otherwise I allow my mind to extrapolate and expand on the facts I have gleaned from my study. I fictionalize where the story requires it.
I try to avoid long passages of factual infodumping. Instead, I layer the facts into the story as it becomes relevant. And I try very hard to reveal information about my characters’ history in much the same way we get to know the real people in our lives. No one comes into our lives and blurts out his or her entire personal history in one go upon first being introduced, and we would be bored to tears if someone tried to. It’s much more interesting, both in real life and in fiction, to keep learning new things that add to our understanding. It keeps us fascinated and engaged, always wanting to know more.