Image by Greg Plominski from Pixabay
So I’ve been spending some time lately reading through the last ten years’ worth of author interviews from Writer’s Digest magazine. This is a sort of follow-up to a project I did last year where I read 10 popular writing books in search for some insight into the role of research in the creative writing process. What I found as a result of that project was interesting but a few colleagues who read an early draft of the resulting article felt that more was needed.
My first idea for what “more” would look like was to identify and examine writing books that were more “academic” in nature. Unfortunately, that stalled when my access to my library’s print collection was disrupted by the pandemic.
I turned instead to Writer’s Digest for a couple of reasons. First, the Writer’s Digest brand is pretty explicitly aimed at helping aspiring writers learn the “how-to” of writing. Second, I had digital access to back issues through my library.
In all, I read almost 70 author interviews in search of information about research. I was surprised by what I found.
But not that surprised.
Which is to say, research gets brought up in these interviews a lot, almost often enough that it could be considered a standard question, along with variations on “do you outline?” and “what’s your writing routine?” and “how has the publishing industry changed since you first started?” I’m not saying the WD interviews follow a formula, but when you read a lot of them close together, you start to notice the things that come up most often. Research came up in 32 of the 68 interviews that I read, or about 47%.
That’s much higher than I expected.
Now, that’s not to say that these interviews didn’t have a tendency to indulge in the myth of the artist as a divinely inspired genius from time to time. Sometimes it came more from the authors themselves than from the interviewers but there was a lot of talk about how writers are basically born to do what they do and they have magic inside them, to the point where I sometimes felt like I couldn’t even with these people. But because of the magazine’s focus on the how-to aspect of writing, there was usually at least some attempt to pull back the curtain, at least a little.
Usually, when it came to questions about research, it was very little. In two cases where research came up, the authors (James Patterson in 2018 and Nicholas Sparks in 2011) answered the question by claiming that they don’t do research.(1) Patterson actually said this: “A lot of times, if you’re a fiction writer, you just make shit up.”
True, but also: ugh.
In other cases, the authors gave some insight into how they do their research. More often than not, they consult with experts or people with direct experience with what they’re writing about. Other times, they seek out that direct experience for themselves, as when Chris Cleave (interviewed in 2012) talked about the intense athletic training he engaged in to write Gold. Ken Follett (in a joint interview with David Morrell) talked about taking flying lessons. This is good information but it kind of struck me that these are research methods that would seem to require a lot of time, money, and connections. I would have liked to know more about how aspiring authors can identify and cultivate relationships with experts and seek out unusual experiences as people who don’t have a famous name to help them get through the door.
Writers who talked about research also occasionally shared some stuff about at what point in the writing process they do research. There were a few who insisted that they needed to do all their research ahead of time and could only start writing once they felt their research was finished. Others, like Diana Gabaldon (interviewed in 2012) seemed to do some foundational research ahead of time and then do more as they go along. Though I didn’t look for a correlation between authors who outline and those who don’t, it does seem like what research an author does and when depended a lot on whether or not they knew where the story was going ahead of time.
The one area that’s still mostly a blank is how writers go about using the information they find in their stories. To me, that’s the aspect of research that most closely relates to craft as opposed to process. Creative writers tend to be pretty insistent that your research should be invisible (in the back of the back of the story, as Stephen King puts it in On Writing) but they don’t give much insight into how to do that.
To be fair, WD author interviews are relatively short pieces with a focus on process. It would be unrealistic to expect any sort of deep dive into craft. Like I said, I was surprised and impressed to find as much as I did after finding so little in the creative writing books I’d read. It seems like a good sign that the research aspect of things doesn’t get completely ignored, at least not in this particular venue.
I still wonder about why it doesn’t get more attention in other venues, though. I’m thinking specifically of the creative writing classroom. In my own undergraduate creative writing program, research never came up. It’s definitely not part of the AWP Guidelines, which essentially state that creative writing programs are about teaching students how to read as writers rather than how to become writers. Craft is more the domain of graduate programs, where the workshop model prevails.
Obviously, I still have more to learn but I still think there’s a gap here. The WD author interviews helped me get a clearer sense of where the gap might be.
(1) In Sparks’s case, he stated that he hadn’t done research on a specific aspect of his novel that the interviewer asked about. He didn’t say anything about whether he does research more generally.