On the Fine Art of Researching For Fiction
Jake Wolff: How to Write Beyond the Borders of Your Experience
The first time I considered the relationship between fiction and research was during a writing workshop—my first—while I watched the professor eviscerate some poor kid’s story about World War II. And yeah, the story was bad. I remember the protagonist being told to “take cover” and then performing several combat rolls to do so.
“You’re college students,” the professor said. “Write about college students.”
Later, better professors would clarify for me that research, with a touch of imagination, can be a perfectly valid substitute for experience. But that’s always where the conversation stopped. If we ever uttered the word “research” in a workshop, we did so in a weaponized way to critique a piece of writing: “This desperately needs more research,” we’d all agree, and then nothing more would be said. We’d all just pretend that everyone in the room already knew how to integrate research into fiction and that the failures of the story were merely a lack of effort rather than skill. Secretly, though, I felt lost.
I knew research was important, and I knew how to research. My questions all had to do with craft. How do I incorporate research into fiction? How do I provide authenticity and detail without turning the story into a lecture? How much research is too much? Too little?
How do I allow research to support the story without feeling obligated to remain in the realm of fact—when I am, after all, trying to write fiction?
I heavily researched my debut novel, in which nearly every chapter is science-oriented, historical, or both. I’d like to share a method I used throughout the research and writing process to help deal with some of my questions. This method is not intended to become a constant fixture in your writing practice. But if you’re looking for ways to balance or check the balance of the amount of research in a given chapter, story, or scene, you might consider these steps: identify, lie, apply.
I recently had a conversation with a former student, now a friend, about a short story he was writing. He told me he was worried he’d packed it too full of historical research.
“Well,” I said, “how much research is in there?”
“Uhhh,” he answered. “I’m not sure?”
That’s what we might call a visualization problem. It’s hard to judge the quantity of something you can’t see.If you’re looking for ways to balance or check the balance of the amount of research in a given chapter, story, or scene, you might consider these steps: identify, lie, apply.
I’ve faced similar problems in my own work. I once received a note from my editor saying that a certain chapter of my novel read too much like a chemistry textbook. At first, I was baffled—I didn’t think of the chapter as being overly research-forward. But upon reading it again, I realized I had missed the problem. After learning so much about chemistry, I could no longer “see” the amount of research I had crammed into twenty pages.
Literature scholars don’t have this problem because they cite their sources; endnotes, footnotes, and the like don’t merely provide a tool for readers to verify claims, but also provide a visual reminder that research exists within the text. Thankfully, creative writers generally don’t have to worry about proper MLA formatting (though you should absolutely keep track of your sources). Still, finding a quick way to visually mark the research in your fiction is the least exciting but also the most important step in recognizing its role in your work.
Personally, I map my research in blue. So when my editor flagged that chapter for me, I went back to the text and began marking the research. By the end of the process, the chapter was filled with paragraphs that looked like this one:
Progesterone is a steroid hormone that plays an especially important role in pregnancy. Only a few months before Sammy arrived in Littlefield, a group of scientists found the first example of progesterone in plants. They’d used equipment I would never be able to access, nuclear magnetic resonance and mass spectroscopy, to search for the hormone in the leaves of the English Walnut trees. In humans, aging was associated with a drop in progesterone and an increase in tumor formation—perhaps a result of its neurosteroidal function.
My editor was spot-on: this barely qualified as fiction. But I truly hadn’t seen it. As both a writer and teacher, I’m constantly amazed by how blind we can become to our own manuscripts. Of course, this works the other way, too: if you’re writing a story set in medieval England but haven’t supported that setting with any research, you’ll see it during this step. It’s such an easy, obvious exercise, but I know so few writers who do this.
Before moving on, I’ll pause to recommend also highlighting research in other people’s work. If there’s a story or novel you admire that is fairly research-forward, go through a few sections and mark anything that you would have needed research to write. This will help you see the spacing and balance of research in the fiction you’re hoping to emulate.
(Two Truths and a) Lie
You’ve probably heard of the icebreaker Two Truths and a Lie: you tell two truths and one lie about yourself, and then the other players have to guess which is the lie. I’d rather die than play this game in real life, but it works beautifully when adapted as a solo research exercise.
It’s very simple. When I’m trying to (re)balance the research in my fiction, I list two facts I’ve learned from my research and then invent one “fact” that sounds true but isn’t. The idea is to acquaint yourself with the sound of the truth when it comes to a given subject and then to recreate that sound in a fictive sentence. It’s a way to provide balance and productivity, ensuring that you’re continuing to imagine and invent—to be a fiction writer—even as you’re researching.
I still have my notes from the first time I used this exercise. I was researching the ancient Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang for a work of historical fiction I would later publish in One Story. I was drowning in research, and the story was nearing fifty pages (!) with no end in sight. My story focused on the final years of the emperor’s life, so I made a list of facts related to that period, including these:
1. The emperor was obsessed with finding the elixir of life and executed Confucian scholars who failed to support this obsession.
2. If the emperor coughed, everyone in his presence had to cough in order to mask him as the source.
3. The emperor believed evil spirits were trying to kill him and built secret tunnels to travel in safety from them.
Now, the second of those statements is a lie. My facts were showing me that the emperor was afraid of dying and made other people the victims of that fear—my lie, in turn, creates a usable narrative detail supporting these facts. I ended up using this lie as the opening of the story. I was a graduate student at the time, and when I workshopped the piece, my professor said something about how the opening worked because “It’s the kind of thing you just can’t make up.” I haven’t stopped using this exercise since.
We have some facts; we have some lies. The final step is to integrate these details into the story. We’ll do this by considering their relationship to the beating heart of fiction: conflict. You can use this step with both facts and lies. My problem tends to be an overload of research rather than the opposite, so I’ll show you an example of a lie I used to help provide balance.When rebalancing the research in my fiction, I list two facts I’ve learned from research and then invent one “fact” that sounds true but isn’t. The idea is to acquaint yourself with the sound of the truth and then to recreate that sound in a fictive sentence.
In a late chapter in my book, three important characters—Sammy and his current lover Sadiq and his ex-lover Catherine—travel to Rapa Nui (Easter Island). They’ve come to investigate a drug with potential anti-aging properties that originates in the soil there (that’s a fact; the drug is called rapamycin). As I researched travel to Easter Island, my Two Truths and a Lie exercise produced the following lie:
There are only two airports flying into Easter Island; these airports constantly fight with each other.
In reality, while there are two airports serving Easter Island (one in Tahiti; the other in Chile), nearly everyone flies from Chile, and it’s the same airline either way. On its surface, this is the kind of lie I would expect to leave on the cutting room floor—it’s a dry, irrelevant detail.
But when I’m using the ILA method, I try not to pre-judge. Instead, I make a list of the central conflicts in the story or chapter and a list of the facts and lies. Then I look for applications—i.e., for ways in which each detail may feel relevant to the conflicts. To my surprise, I found that the airport lie fit the conflicts of the chapter perfectly:
|Sammy dumped Catherine to be with Sadiq, but he isn’t sure he’s made the right decision.||
There are only two airports flying into Easter Island; these airports constantly fight with each other.
The characters all feel torn between two things; they’ve made binary choices they are now reconsidering.
|Sadiq worries that his relationship with high-maintenance Sammy is distracting him from his own career.|
|Catherine left academia for the private sector; the company she works for pays well but is morally dubious.|
Ultimately, the airport lie spoke to the characters, all of whom were feeling the painful effects of life’s capriciousness, the way the choices we make can seem under our control but also outside it, arbitrary but also fateful. I used this lie to introduce these opposing forces and to divide the characters: Sammy and Sadiq fly from Tahiti; Catherine flies from Chile.
Two airports in the world offered flights to Rapa Nui—one in Tahiti, to the west, and one in Chile, to the east. Most of the scientists stayed in one of those two countries. There was no real meaning to it. But still, it was hard, in a juvenile way, not to think of the two groups as opposing teams in a faction. There was the Tahiti side, and there was the Chile side, and only one could win.
This sort of schematic—complete with a table and headers—may seem overly rigid to you, to which I’d respond, Gee, you sound like one of my students. What can I say? I’m a rigid guy. But when you’re tackling a research-intensive story, a little rigidity isn’t the worst thing. Narrative structure does not supply itself. It results from the interplay between the conflicts, the characters, and the details used to evoke them. I’m presenting one way, of many, to visualize those relationships whenever you’re feeling lost.
Zora Neal Hurston wrote, “Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” Maybe that’s why I’m thinking of structure and rigidity—research, for me, is bolstering in this way. It provides form. But it’s also heavy and hard to work with. It doesn’t bend. If you’re struggling with the burden of it, give ILA a shot and see if unsticks whatever is holding you back. If you do try this approach, let me know if it works for you—and if it doesn’t, feel free to lie.
Jake Wolff’s The History of Living Forever is out now from FSG.