I picked up Description & Setting by Ron Rozelle after reading another book in the same series, Plot & Structure. In large part, my interest was more personal than anything else. Description is something I’ve always struggled with in my own writing and I was intrigued by the idea of an entire book that covered the topic in as much detail as James Scott Bell covered plot and structure in his book. To that end, I definitely found some useful stuff including character profile worksheets and plot graphs that get you thinking not only about when and where your stories take place but what time of day and what the weather is like, even if that information is never mentioned in the scene itself.
What I also found, to my surprise, was probably more information on the role of research in creative writing than I’ve found in any writing book so far.
That tone again
Before I get to that, though, I feel the need to say something about the tone of this book. One of the things I liked about Plot & Structure was that Bell made the book feel friendlier than a lot of other writing books I’ve read. There was something about the way he wrote it that made it feel like he was pulling back the curtain, showing you what he’d learned about how writing works. Like writing is a toaster he’s taking apart in front of you to help you understand how it functions. There’s a sense of wonder that he wants you to share. You walk away from that book a little overwhelmed with information but also with the sense of, “hey, I can do that!”
By contrast, Rozelle left me with the feeling of, “shit, can I do that?” His tone is much more lofty. He uses a lot of examples from Great Writers. As a reader, I felt like he was shaking his finger at me a lot. Like if I was a “real” writer, I should already know this stuff. I would have a natural ear for it. He shouldn’t have to explain it to me. A lot of writing books are written this way, actually. As if good writing can’t really be taught, but since you asked…
To be fair, plot and structure are an aspect of writing that I feel more confident about than description and setting, so that certainly could have been a factor in my perception of Rozelle’s tone. But in either case, I was surprised by how different the two books felt given that they are ostensibly two parts of the same series.
The role of research
As I read Rozelle’s book, I came across a page early on in which he talks about how valuable a map of his hometown was to him as a source of information while writing one of his novels. I did something I don’t normally do: I scribbled a note about the research-related reference on a sticky note and stuck it on the relevant page, then kept reading. I started doing this every time I came across a reference to research. In the end, the book was virtually filled with sticky notes. The topic came up at least once a chapter.
In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway elides the subject of research entirely when discussing description and setting by saying the reader will “inevitably know” what is right, as if writing gives you magic powers. Rozelle makes it clear that this is not the case. He talks about watching movies set in the same time or place as a story you want to write to learn about needed details. He talks about using the internet to learn everything he could about Cleveland so that he could set a story in northern Ohio, a place he’d never actually been. Unlike Bridget Whelan, who warns her readers against doing research, Rozelle warns his reader to make sure they are doing enough in order to avoid mistakes like placing mountains where no mountains would actually be.
This is a virtual treasure trove compared to what I’ve found in other books and yet it still isn’t a lot. Rozelle talks a lot about why research is important and gives some general clues about how it’s done (the internet, visiting somewhere in person, watching movies) but not enough to get a real sense of how a fiction writer might find, evaluate, and use (or not use) information in the quest to create vivid descriptions and believable settings. But at least he’s not trying to convince anyone that they will “inevitably know” what’s right. Whatever that means.
The question of research assistants
Rozelle holds James Michener up as an example of an author who was very thorough in his research, saying that Michener generally wouldn’t even start writing a book until he had read X number of pages on the topic first. In a chapter about sensory description, Rozelle talks about a visit Michener once made to a town in Texas where Rozelle was living at the time. Michener was there to participate in a dedication ceremony for a planetarium. He was also there to do research on well-digging for his book, Texas.
Rozelle notes that Michener could have sent “one of his minions” to research well-digging for him but that he wanted to experience it himself in order write about it more fully and believably. By “minions,” Rozelle seems to mean “research assistants.”
I’ve wondered for a long time about the role of research assistants in the fiction writing process. It seemed like a given that some particularly well-known or prolific authors would delegate at least some of the research work to others, the way well-funded professors hire graduate students and other assistants to help them with their research projects. More often than not, you see those research assistants’ names mentioned in the acknowledgements section of the published book.
So how does this relationship work? How do writers decide which research to take on themselves and which to give to someone else to do for them? How do you go about using research someone else did for you in your own work?
If there is little information about the role of research in fiction writing out there, there is even less about this aspect of it. In fact, Rozelle’s reference to Michener’s research “minions” was the first time I can remember that someone made reference to their existence. I would have liked to know more.
The writing process
At the end of the book, Rozelle includes a chapter that summarizes the role of description and setting throughout the writing process. The steps he includes are “The Idea,” “Planning,” “Writing,” “Revision,” and “Feedback.” This also gives some insight into where in the writing process he believes research fits. In On Writing, Stephen King placed it basically at the revision/feedback stages—you only do research if you get caught doing something wrong. Rozelle front loads it mostly in the planning stage. He recommends having the products of that research (things like photographs and floor plans) within easy reach during the writing stage for ready reference.
Rozelle is pretty adamant that the writing stage of the process should strictly be for writing and that a writer should set aside a certain amount of time every day that is reserved for writing only. No planning, no research, no editing.(1) What’s interesting to me about this is the way the research process is considered separate from the writing process. This is in line with what I’ve seen in other books, though Rozelle’s emphasis throughout the book on the importance of research and the way it enhances rather than interferes with creativity sets this apart. It’s just something I’m so curious to know more about, especially since this tension about using “writing time” to do anything other than writing exists in the academic field as well.
I came close to putting this book down when I first started reading it because Rozelle’s tone was a bit of a turnoff. I’m glad I didn’t. More than any other writing book I’ve read, Rozelle really advocates for the importance of research and even gives some insight into how such research might be done. It’s the best example I’ve found so far.
(1) His own routine at the time he wrote this was to rise at four o’clock in the morning and write until five-thirty. JFC.