Questions I have about the role of research in fiction writing

Image by Hebi B. from Pixabay

Recently, I spent some time reading 10 years’ worth of author interviews from Writer’s Digest in search of some insight into the role of research in the creative writing process. After discovering how seldom the topic of research comes up in popular creative writing books, I wasn’t expecting to find much so I was surprised by how often research was mentioned, either because the interviewer specifically asked about it or because the author brought it up on their own.

With a few exceptions, the discussions about research in these interviews tended to be somewhat surface-level if only because there’s a lot of ground to cover in a relatively small space. Because of that, the interviews helped to establish that research is, in fact, part of the creative process and even gave a sense of what that research might look like in some cases but in reading them I felt that for the most part they weren’t really giving me what I was looking for.

So as I’m starting to develop an interview protocol that I’m hoping to use with living, breathing fiction writers, it becomes necessary to consider: what is it, exactly, that I’m looking for?

Gaps worth filling: Research is, at its core, a process that we undertake in order to fill a gap in knowledge. That can be a gap in our personal knowledge or a gap in a field of knowledge. Either way, there’s some kind of hole in our understanding of something. Fiction writers must run into this all the time when they write their stories. My guess is that while they fill some of these gaps using their imagination, others might require research. How do they decide when imagination is good enough and when more is needed?

Evaluation of sources: In academic and scholarly research, we think a lot about evaluating our sources. We look at elements like the source’s age, the authority of the person who wrote it, the validity of the research it describes, and its general scholarliness to help judge its quality and, by association, its usefulness to our research. Creative writers must also put some thought into the quality of their sources, whether those sources are people or archival materials or what have you. How do they decide which sources to trust?

Creative license: When conducting a literature review for a scholarly work, scholarly researchers don’t have a lot of room to exercise creative license when they find a source that’s inconvenient to the argument they’re trying to make. Ignoring the source altogether or twisting what it says are choices that both come with a lot of potential peril when it comes to the researcher’s credibility (not to mention how it might affect the peer review process). Fiction writers have a little more with this. How and when do they exercise creative license with their findings? What do they see as their ethical responsibilities when it comes to ignoring or changing information to suit a story they’re trying to tell?

Making research invisible: Creative writing books don’t have much to say about the role of research in the creative process but on the rare occasion when they do talk about research, it’s usually the warn the aspiring writer against the great sin of letting their research show. The message seems to be that a “good” writer uses their research to enhance the story while also making it invisible to the reader, sort of like how the best film scores influence your experience of a movie without drawing attention to themselves. This is valuable advice that’s rendered completely useless by the fact that these admonitions are never accompanied by guidance on how, exactly, writers go about achieving the “invisible” effect with their research. If research belongs in the back of the back of the story, how do you get it there?

Giving credit: In academic and scholarly research, there are a lot of rules and conventions around giving credit to the sources you use. Citations are a pain in the ass but they’re there for a reason—it’s a matter of ethics. When it comes to fiction, it’s rare (though not completely unheard of) to find a list of sources consulted at the end of the story or even a reference to a specific source used. At best, the author might include the name of someone who assisted with their research in the list of acknowledgements. What are the ethical considerations here?


These are just a few ideas off the top of my head based on what I’ve found in my investigation so far. Not exactly the type of questions you’re likely to find as part of a WD author interview (and understandably so) but still something that I feel curious about both as a researcher and as an amateur creative writer. Hopefully I’ll come up with a good way to actually pursue these questions soon but for right now this is what’s floating around in my mind as what I’d most like to know about fiction writers and their research.


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