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Researching Fact for Fiction: Lots of Helpful Tips for the Novelist

I was on a panel at Grub Street’s annual writers conference, Muse and the Marketplace, with novelists Juliette Fay, Lisa Genova and Maryanne O’Hara talking about how we research our books. We developed the following guide as a handout for the class.

Interviews

  • Don’t be afraid to ask. You’re thinking, “I’d really like to ask that super famous leader on linguistics some questions.” Then you talk yourself out of it. Give the possibility a chance. Most people say YES.
  • Do your homework before you interview other people, especially professionals or experts. Only ask the questions you can’t get answers to online or in text books.
  • Create an interview guide. Begin your interview with a planned set of well-conceived questions, then let the answers lead you to new questions. Always end the interview with: Is there anything I haven’t thought of to ask that’s important for me to know?
  • Do interviews in person whenever possible. If you are interviewing a physician, go to his or her office. You’ll pick up details you can’t get over the phone—what’s on the walls, on the desk, how he/she is dressed, body language, the feel of the room.

Settings

  • If you can visit a location that you want to use in your novel, visit. Call ahead to see if there is someone who’d be willing to talk to you. Locals often have information you can’t find in books or online.
  • If you can’t visit, Streetview in Google Maps can show you amazing details. For historical locations, Cardcow.com has innumerable postcards of buildings and settings so you can see how they looked at a particular point in time.
  • You can also interview a person who has been there and ask about sights, smells, sounds and quirks.
  • Laura Hillenbrand, the acclaimed author of Seabiscuit and Unbroken suffers from severe, debilitating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and depends completely on being able to do research from her home.

Historical Facts

  • If possible, read books published during your chosen period, to get a flavor for speech and the details of living. For more recent history, watch old newsreels, and movies that were contemporary in their day. Make sure you’ve got the class and education levels right.
  • In terms of accents or the way people spoke in different time periods, a little flavor goes a long way. For instance, you can’t have all your dialogue in actual Middle English unless you only want Middle English speakers (i.e. about 5 people on the planet) to buy your book.
  • The best historical writing is immediate and timeless. Focus on your story, first. It’s very easy to get bogged down in research. Many advocate writing a first draft with as little research as possible.
  • Try to discern between what is right and what feels right. Even if a fact is “true,” if it seems like something a reader will question, you might want to cut it.
  • It’s okay to surmise what a historical figure might have said or thought based on good research. We can never know for certain the thoughts or private conversations of others, but if you’ve done your homework, it’s reasonable to make your best guess.
  • etymonline.com is a great source for figuring out language trends.

General

  • EBay is full of strange things—trinkets, maps, clothing items, catalogs, etc.—that can be useful for your work. It’s great to have these “primary sources” at your fingertips, and it can be very inspiring to have an actual item that one of your characters might have owned.
  • Libraries are great sources for research, for free use of materials, and staff who are willing to help. www.publiclibraries.com and www.loc.gov (Library of Congress) are good places to start.
  • Be prepared for those who will want to correct you. We’ve each been contacted by people who thought they knew better than we did, and enjoyed correcting us. Don’t take it personally—it’s just part of the job of being a writer. Try to have respectful answers.
  • Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story, but stick to facts as much as you can.
  • Include an “Author’s Note” at the end of your book outlining exactly where you bent the truth. You can also thank your sources in the acknowledgments, which lets people know you did your homework.
  • Resist any urge you have to show off how much you know. Only use what’s relevant to STORY and in such a way that makes sense given the story’s voice and point of view. Trust that nothing is wasted, and that readers will feel the depth without being hammered over the head with TMI.
  • Research is not your new career. You can dig forever on any subject. But the point is to know enough to write your story. Some research will be ongoing, but it’s a supporting role now, never the star.
  • Don’t let your research keep you from writing. It’s a dangerous procrastination.

(This was also published on the Beyond the Margins website.)