Research in fiction writing: What I learned from Five Things posts on Terrible Minds

As part of my investigation into the role of research in fiction writing, I’ve been seeking out author self-reports mostly in the form of Writer’s Digest interviews and how-to books to see whether research ever comes up. I decided to add the “Five Things” posts from Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog to my list for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is that it was these posts that inspired my research in the first place.

If you’re not familiar, Wendig is a bestselling author who regularly features posts on his blog by other authors as a way of promoting their work. These posts are almost always framed as “Five Things I Learned [while writing the work being promoted].” Though the posts are obviously meant as a signal boost and a marketing tool, the authors who write them often offer meaningful and interesting reflections on the writing and publishing process as well as bits of advice for aspiring writers. It’s a great way to discover new favorite authors (or hear from familiar ones in a new way) and the thoughts they are always worth a read.

That said, I’ve spent the last month or so reading through five years’ worth of these things (2015-2019), over 120 in all. I had planned to do 10 years’ worth (or as close as I could get if the series had been running less than 10 years) for the sake of consistency since I’d read 10 years of Writer’s Digest interviews and consistency is a big thing with peer reviewers when you publish research. But, yeah. Turns out 120 blog posts is…a lot.

If you’re wondering what I learned about writing from reading these, I actually found a lot of consistency in many authors’ advice. Basically: the second book is always harder than the first book (especially when the second book is the middle one in a trilogy), figure out which hills you’re willing to die on when you and your editor disagree about something, write what you love instead of trying to follow the market (even if what you love is exceptionally weird), don’t overpromise on what you can deliver, and don’t feel guilty if you’re not as successful/productive as someone else.(1)

Also: do your research.

Of the 120 posts I read, research came up in 31 of them, about 26%, which is slightly fewer than the Writer’s Digest author interviews I read but still a good number and fairly consistent with what I’m finding from the “how-to” writing books I’m reading. Of the 31 that mentioned research, 19 of them went into some detail about the research process, including the types of sources they use.

What they shared points to an interesting difference between the WD interviews and the Five Things posts. When the authors in the WD interviews talked about their research in any detail, they usually talked about hands-on research or interviewing experts. That came up a lot in the Five Things posts, too. But what also came up a lot in the Five Things posts but not so much the WD interviews were sources that would be considered more informal or “atypical” from an academic perspective. For example, Google Maps came up a lot as a tool for exploring story settings. But also the Discovery Channel and documentaries on YouTube.

What’s significant about this is that these informal or “atypical” sources are ones we don’t talk about when we teach research. Instead, we talk about scholarly and peer-reviewed sources and how they’re the gold standard of credibility. Which is true, but only for certain kinds of research. Research with rigid conventions, like academic and scholarly research.

I expected that creative research would be more idiosyncratic and less ruled by convention, especially with regard to fiction writing. The consistency with which fiction authors talk about the importance of hands-on research and interviews with experts suggests that actually there might be some conventions there, where this type of research is considered the most useful/valuable in the same way that peer-reviewed sources are considered most valuable by scholarly and academic researchers.(2) But obviously there’s a lot of flexibility and the Five Things posts that talk about other types of sources used illustrates that in interesting ways.

And what of the library? In the WD interviews, the library was given nary a mention, though one author did talk about using scholarly sources in a way that seemed to imply access to a library’s collection or services, whether direct or indirect. The library does fare a little better in the Five Things posts: two authors gave libraries at least a passing mention, including David Mack in 2018 and Sarah Chorn in 2019.

Does that mean the library doesn’t play a role in creative research for fiction writers? It might. It could also just be that hands-on research and expert interviews are just more fun to talk about when you’re being interviewed or reflecting on your writing process in a public forum. By contrast, talking about the library probably feels a little nerdy and embarrassing.

I won’t know more until I’m deeper into my research, which includes another handful of “academic” writing books and then perhaps a revised approach to the popular writing books angle that I tried before. For now, it feels like some things are starting to come into focus and I’m excited to see what happens next.

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(1) Just to be clear, this list isn’t meant to mock any of the authors who named any of these items as part of their posts or suggest that their advice is less valuable because so many of them seemed to be saying the same things over and over again. Chances are, most people aren’t going to go digging through five years’ worth of these posts, so valuable advice is worth repeating. Also even when the gist of the advice is the same as something others have already said, there’s always an individual spin that’s worth exploring.

(2) What’s really interesting about this is that in both cases the types of sources that are considered most valuable come with questions of access. Access to peer-reviewed sources is generally limited to those with the necessary funding—funding which usually comes through affiliation with an academic or research institution. I imagine hands-on research often requires some financial investment on the part of the writer. Interviews with experts might not but I’m guessing credentials in the form of publication/success/fame help when it comes to who those experts decide to grant access to their knowledge to.

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