In keeping with the underlying theme of this blog, "Reference," I like to occasionally give a tip of the hat to resources or authors' experiences with reference and research when writing their novels. The various approaches are as varied as the authors and the storylines themselves, but there are some similarities that often connect them all. Here are some recent takes on how it's done:
- Bestselling author Peter James has chatted on several occasions about his research experiences. His entry into the police procedural world was a bit rough in the beginning, coinciding as it did with a burglary—of his own home. That led to a long personal and career partnership with several Brighton detectives and James's realization that if you "get their world right, you might have a fan for life. Get it wrong and you’ll be in the trash can." And in another interview, he noted that "I never write about a place I haven’t been to."
- Jane Isaac is another fan of talking with members of law enforcement about their real-life experiences. She adds, "Often such information provides background material which never appears in the novel, or only converts to a couple of lines...But the details we learn provide more depth to our work, allowing us to describe scenes and people from an informed viewpoint...Ever read a book when you’ve questioned an event, a character, a place because it isn’t quite right? Failing to do your research will show."
- Sue Monk Kidd is known for her fiction that sometimes has historical elements, and as you might imagine, there's quite a bit of research involved in getting details right when dealing with plots set in the past. In a Q&A with Shelf Awareness, she talked about researching her first full-fledged historical novel The Invention of Wings, which went on for six months before she started writing. Even then, the research continued for the three years it took her to finish the book, as she looked up topics such as the kind of mourning dress widows wore in 1819 or what the emancipation laws in South Carolina were at that time.
- Allen Appel looked at the flip side of researching thrillers on his blog The Thriller Guy. He mentioned a quotation by author Michael Chabon in The Wall Street Journal that points out the pitfalls of researching novels, "Research is incredibly pleasurable and seductive and you have to be on your guard against it. It's very easy to use it as an excuse not to write....The Internet is there to say 'just one more link, just one more link.'" But not doing your research ahead of time can also cause problems. Bestselling author John Grisham was 100 pages into his legal thriller, The Associate, set at the Princeton Law School, when he found out that Princeton doesn't have a law school."
- And, as Appel points out in his blog post, even James Michener realized sometimes research can only get you so far, and as Michener explained, "The greatest novels are written without any recourse to research other than that writer's solitary inspection of the human experience. Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Jane Austen, Turgenev, and Henry James exemplify this truth...."
I'm always interested in hearing about other author's experiences with research—their techniques, philosophies, the good, the bad, and the ugly. What works for you? What doesn't? What words of advice would you give to newbie authors?