Research in Fiction Writing: Thoughts on The Secret Miracle

After reading 10 popular books on creative writing in search of information on the role of research, I’ve now shifted my focus to a set of more “academic” books that are specifically about fiction writing. I say “academic” because, of all of the books on a very long list of recommended creative writing books that I found, these are the ones that are a) about fiction writing specifically and b) owned by the libraries at 20 institutions with highly respected creative writing programs at either the undergraduate or graduate level.

Today, I’m taking a look at The Secret Miracle: The Novelist’s Handbook, edited by Daniel Alarcon.

The Secret Miracle is a bit different from the writing books I’ve read so far, both popular and academic, in the sense that it’s not one author’s take on the creative process. Instead, it’s structured as a series of questions for which “we’ve gathered answers from several dozen of our favorite authors about the details of novel writing from the most personal and esoteric to the most practical.” There are many recognizable names among the “panel,” including Stephen King, Amy Tan, Roddy Doyle, Claire Messud and many, many more.

I have to say, when I first saw how this book was structured, I wasn’t thrilled. Each answer was labeled with the author’s name but it was hard to keep track of who was saying what and there are so many authors speaking that I wasn’t able to get a good sense of who many of them were, at least not the ones that weren’t already familiar to me. I really wasn’t sure at first if I was reading the transcript of a panel in which the authors were in direct conversation with one another or if they had all responded separately and this was a compilation of their responses or something else. As I read, it seemed the answer was the latter but I’m still not a hundred percent sure how this book came to be except that apparently it’s the result of some project or program by an organization called 826 National.

But as I started to get used to the structure and not mind so much that I didn’t know who everyone was, I began to really appreciate just how many voices and points of view are represented here: famous authors, less famous authors, American authors, international authors, literary authors, non-literary authors, female authors, male authors, authors with one book, authors with many books, authors who had been in the business for years, authors who were relatively new to publishing, authors who write for a living, authors who have day jobs, etc. Just a lot of different voices answering questions about how they as writers think and work.

This book describes itself more or less as a “how-to” which takes the reader “step-by-step through the alchemy of writing fiction.”(1) But the thing about creative writing how-to books is that they tend to be very…prescriptive. They have certain ideas about The Way Things Should Be Done. More than that, they have ideas about The Way Great Writers Do Things. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is a good example of this because the authors of that book constantly compare what “amateur” writers do/how they think/how they write versus what Great Writers do. Even a more academic book like From Where You Dream gets pretty prescriptive about process.

For The Secret Miracle, it’s impossible to be prescriptive because there are so many different voices here. And those voices represent so many different ways of doing things. And so many of these voices belong to Great Writers. If this is a “how-to” book, it’s one that (seemingly inadvertently) challenges the notion that the common wisdom about writing is, in fact, common. Or wisdom. Even though some of these writers definitely do have strong opinions about the creative process, the fact that they are one voice among many means that the overall lesson of this book is that there are many right ways to be a writer and very few wrong ones.

That was refreshing to read after so many books in which the only “Right Way” is to either be a literary writer or to fashion yourself after one.

Also refreshing: there is so much in this book about research.

In fact, there’s an entire section on research in which all of the writers respond to the question: Do you do any research before you begin writing? If so, do you find it helpful, or does it constrain your imagination?

This section spans about ten pages. TEN PAGES. That is so much more information about the role of research in fiction writing than I’ve been able to find in any of the other books I’ve read up until this point. It’s a freaking goldmine, people.

That said, I do have a quibble with the way the question is phrased, at least the first part of it. Why this assumption that research takes place before you begin writing? Where does that come from?

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter because, again, there are so many answers here from so many different writers that you get what feels like a pretty full spectrum of responses. Many of the writers do seem to do the bulk of their research before they begin writing but others do it as they write because they don’t know what they’ll need to research until they’re already in the thick of it. Which I think makes for a pretty interesting argument against the notion that research and writing are somehow completely separate processes.

Also interesting: a number of authors responded to the question by saying that they don’t do research as part of their creative work.(2) In some cases, they portrayed research as something that constrained their creativity rather than enhanced it because they were afraid that if they researched too much, it would in some way interfere with the story they were trying to tell, either because they were using research as a means to procrastinate or because too many facts might ruin the magic. The procrastination angle is one that I was aware of based on some of the other books I’ve read but the idea that research can, in fact, interfere with the “magic” of the creative process is something that hadn’t occurred to me before. That said, I think there might be some connections here to some earlier thoughts I had about creative license that might be worth exploring.

All of this to say: there’s a lot here. Research pops up in this book time and again, in response to all sorts of questions about the creative process—not just this one that’s specifically about research. Because this book shows up in so many academic library collections, there’s reason to believe that it gets used as a text in creative writing classrooms or has been at some point. Do the parts of the book that talk about research get attention in this setting, I wonder? Or do instructors focus instead on the parts that are more about craft and ignore the research-related information?

I don’t know. But I do think it’s meaningful that a book that talks so much about the role of research in the creative process might be part of the creative writing curricula somewhere. It definitely seems significant that this is the case.


  1. Is it possible to take someone step-by-step through alchemy? IDK
  2. One of these responses comes from Stephen King who literally just says “No” to this question, which isn’t surprising given what he said about research in On Writing. Actually, most of his responses in the book are only a sentence or two long and are described in the blurb on the back of the book as “deadpan.” I suppose this is true if by “deadpan” you mean “dick.” And I say that as someone who likes Stephen King. 

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