The Role of Research in Fiction Writing: A Suspicion

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I’m using this blog in part to talk about a project I’m working on which involves reading through popular writing advice books to find out how and whether they discuss the role of research in creative writing . Before I get to some of what I’ve found so far, I wanted to spend some time establishing where the idea that research plays a role in creative writing comes from in the first place.

Because let me tell you, it was not, as far as I can recall, in any of the creative writing workshops I took as an undergraduate. If we ever discussed research as part of the creative process in that program, I have no memory of it.

Yet I can’t help but suspect that research does play a role in creative writing.*

Let me explain where that suspicion comes from.

Terrible Minds and Jane Friedman

I’ve been a big fan of Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog for a few years now. Wendig uses his blog to offer his unique and often hilariously vulgar take on the writing life. He also features guest posts from other writers who share lessons of their own. On occasion, research comes up directly, like in this post by Sarah Chorn about her book Seraphina’s Lament. Or Peter Tieryas’s post on his book Mecha Samurai Empire. Other times it’s discussed more obliquely. But it’s there.

Jane Friedman’s blog focuses more on the business side of writing. But while the idea for this project was cogitating in my mind, she happened to feature a guest post by Dan Koboldt on the importance of research to ensure technical accuracy in science fiction. A quick search shows that research has come up on occasion in other ways on that blog as well.

So it’s not like no one is talking about it. It’s just that a lot of times, you have to squint to see it and the particulars of how this research actually works is left pretty mysterious.

Paratextual information

Speaking of squinting. I recently learned that things like author’s notes and acknowledgements pages are called “paratextual information” (ooh, aah). For learning about whether research took place as part of the process for writing the book, this paratextual information is usually where it’s at, especially the list of acknowledgements. In these you’ll mostly learn a lot about the writer’s parents or spouse or children or best friend or whatever, but in between all of that is the occasional reference to research.


“Finally, I am grateful to a number of organizations and people without whom this novel would not be the book that it is…that facilitated my research or writing.” (from The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen)

And this:

“For their expertise in fields of which I knew little or less, thanks to…” (from A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan)

And also this:

“Thanks also…to Allen Pullen at Open Hearth, who reeducated me about restaurants.” (from Empire Falls by Richard Russo)

Those are just a few examples from some Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction. If you look for it, though, you can find examples of this kind of thing in just about any kind of fiction that’s out there.

But even if it wasn’t for that…

Writers are not all-knowing, even when they know a lot

Recently, I read the fourth book in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, which if you’re not familiar involves time traveling through various historical periods. As I read, it struck me that even though Gabaldon is an awesome writer and no doubt an extremely knowledgeable person, it’s impossible to believe that in creating the world(s) of her story, she didn’t at some point encounter a gap in her knowledge that she then needed to seek information to fill.

The same goes for George R. R. Martin, who’s talked about how he based a lot of the Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones series on real historical events, including the Wars of the Roses. Martin even said that he takes history and files off the serial numbers to create his work. That knowledge of history has to have come from somewhere.

And it’s not just epic fiction, either. It’s crime thrillers that have to take into account how police investigations actually work. It’s historical romance novels where the social structure of a particular society might come into play. It’s young adult novels written by an adult who wants their main character to be believable as a teenager. It’s science fiction books where some understanding of technology or physics might be necessary to telling the story. It is every kind of story.

So why doesn’t it get talked about more?

For all this evidence that research plays a role in fiction writing, it doesn’t seem to get talked about very much. I have a couple of theories about why this might be.

The first is divine inspiration. Stick with me here. Basically, whenever we talk about art, we place a lot of emphasis on inspiration. Maybe sometimes you have to go looking for inspiration, but once you have it, that’s all you need. In fact, being an artist is about being able to harness that inspiration to create something beautiful and meaningful. The idea that any research might be needed kind of ruins the illusion, so maybe it gets buried or ignored.

The second is that the research process is often seen as separate from the writing process. This isn’t a problem that’s unique to the creative world. Academics who need to publish to get tenure can’t seem to agree on whether conducting a literature review (or outlining, or editing, or revising) actually counts as “writing time” in their crowded schedules. You can also see this separation in discussions of creative writing if you notice that books about how to do research as part of the creative process do exist, but they tend to be separate from books about the creative act of writing.

Why is this important?

Everybody who’s ever spent a minute of their life thinking about or learning about writing has heard the old adage: write what you know. Anecdotally, it seems to me that next to killing your darlings, “write what you know” is not only the most familiar piece of writing advice, it’s also one of the most commonly challenged or critiqued.

There is value in stepping outside of your own life experiences to create a story. But when you do, you’re likely to encounter a gap in your knowledge. Since fiction writing is, at its core, an exercise in making stuff up, you can probably get away with papering over that gap and only fixing it if someone notices it’s there. But that can’t be the answer all the time, especially if you are someone from a privileged background writing about less privileged characters.

So what do you do? How do you find the information that helps close the gap? How do you use it as part of your story? Each writer might have a different answer to those questions. But for all the reading and learning I’ve done about writing (in between some actual writing), I feel like those answers have been left largely mysterious. It could be that I’m mistaken and I just haven’t found the right resources (in which case, please direct me to them!). But if I’m right, I think that’s too bad. Because while it’s true that new and aspiring fiction writers need to learn about things like creating scenes and dialogue, they also need to learn what to do when they up against what they don’t know. This is part of the power and responsibility that comes with being a creator of information.**



*In reading this over, I realize that even though I’m using the term “creative writing,” I’m mostly referring to fiction writing. This is going to come up again in the stuff I’m going to be writing about the 10 books project . Apologies to those interested in discussions of other types of creative writing.

**Art=information. Fight me.

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