Research is essential to writing. That’s obvious when writing nonfiction—a thesis or dissertation, a journal or newspaper article, a biography, an event that happened two centuries or two days ago. But it’s also true for fiction writing as well.
Fiction is not true, it didn’t happen—but it could be true and it could happen. Good fiction doesn’t ask the reader to suspend belief in the real world. Fiction might tell us that our character felt as if the very stones were singing to him. If those stones really were singing to him, we are in the world of fantasy and not fiction.
So even though the story is fictional—it didn’t happen, at least as far as the author knows—the fictional world is real. And it’s just as important to know the facts for fiction as for nonfiction. One difference is that fiction doesn’t have to include all the facts and it doesn’t have to footnote sources. The major difference, of course, is that fiction and fact are cleverly interwoven in the story to appear real.
So how much research should an author put into writing a story or a novel? As an author, I ask myself How accurate do I want to be? How accurate do my readers want me to be? If I read a fiction piece about pigeons, even incidentally, I want to know the basic facts about pigeons and pigeon keepers.
That’s exactly what happened when I wrote a 250-word story for a flash fiction competition. That’s right—250 words. And how much research did I do in order to feel knowledgeable enough to write this tiny story? About five hours. And I’m still on the mailing list of one pigeon group! But I feel confident that a pigeon person won’t find any factual errors in my terms or descriptions. If you’re curious, “Pigeon Post” appears at the end of this journal entry.
Another murderous short story required days of research about the “weapon” and took me into 17th- and 18th-century literature, Indonesian travel, and international reader/writer conferences. Whew! The caveat here is that sometimes the research is so interesting that it tries to wiggle free from being a means to the end to being the end itself. That danger can lead to an unpublished author who has a head full of more trivia facts than anyone else you know.
Two more thoughts about research and writing. Where should the line be drawn between fact and fiction? And how can you as a reader trust a fiction writer to provide enough accurate facts?
I borrow Hemingway’s oft-quoted opinion about the “iceberg” method of writing to apply to research instead. Most of my writing depends on seven-eighths research that’s hidden underneath while the one-eighth tip floating above is my story the reader sees.
Have you ever read a fiction book that you felt had too little or even mistaken facts in it? How did that affect your enjoyment of the book?
Andrea walked out to the loft with grain for her pigeons. She owned eight racing homing pigeons, five veterans and three first-year flyers. Of her veterans, Walter was her favorite, not because he was a top winner in competition but because he had bonded to her in an extraordinary way.
As she stepped into the loft, she started to click and whistle, calling her birds to dinner. She scanned the perches as each pigeon flew down to the feeder.
Something was wrong. Walter was missing.
Andrea continued to click and whistle as she searched the entire loft and aviary for Walter. She put out clean water and went back to the house.
Shaking and near panic, Andrea tried to think. No furry or feathered predator could get to her pigeons; her loft was too well built. Had Walter been stolen? What could a thief do with a highly recognizable Janssen racing pigeon? The racing community knew Walter.
She needed to call her dearest friend Ned; he’d have some ideas. Just then, Andrea heard cooing and shuffling in the loft. Running outside, she saw Walter drop into the trap and disappear inside. She slipped into the loft and cradled Walter in her hands, surprised to see a tiny harness strapped to his chest with a box attached. How strange, she thought. Andrea carefully opened the box and a diamond ring fell out, along with a note: Walter and I love you, but I’m the one who wants to marry you. Ned.