Why I want to learn about the role of research in fiction

This is something I’ve talked about before, but now that I’m deeper into some of my research on the topic and my understanding of it is beginning to evolve, I wanted to take some time to revisit some of the motivations behind the investigation I’m doing into the role of research in fiction writing.

Prescriptive versus descriptive

First, I think it’s important to re-establish that my goals here diverge a bit from what usually the norm on the scholarly literature in my field in that I’m not interested in trying to convince authors that they should be using the library more. A lot of the literature on creative information-seeking (that is, information-seeking undertaken for creative purposes) treats creative populations as “problem users” who either don’t use the library’s services and collections as intended or don’t use them at all. The goal of most of this literature is to in some way figure out how to fix this so that libraries can play more of a role in this type of research, thus adding to their perceived value.

I’m not really about that. I’m not interested in “fixing” the way creative writers do research. I’m not even necessarily interested in trying to distill the research creative people do into some kind of standard process that can be followed step-by-step. I just want to explore what it is fiction authors in particular do when they do research, how they do it, and how they developed their research process.

Basically, I’m not interested in telling creative researchers what to do, which would be a prescriptive approach. I’m interested in understanding what they do already—a descriptive approach.

The contextual nature of research

The reason I’m interested in learning what fiction authors do when they do research is that I suspect there are some important differences between what they do and what, for example, a scholarly author does when they do research. I’ve already found some evidence for this in the emphasis some fiction authors place on the importance of hands-on research. To many authors who talk about research, this seems to be the gold standard in terms of information that can be used to tell a story the same way peer-reviewed articles are considered the gold standard for scholarly and academic researchers.

I’m also becoming increasingly interested in the ethical use of information, particularly when it comes to the issue of creative license. In answering a question about research in the book The Secret Miracle, some authors claimed that they avoided research because they feared it might interfere with the creative process—that they might find out something inconvenient and that it would ruin their whole story. More commonly, the authors who acknowledged the importance of research to their work made it clear that they had no qualms about discarding, ignoring, or otherwise manipulating inconvenient information discovered as part of the research process. Facts are secondary to the story being told. Which is honestly fascinating from an ethical use perspective when you consider how creative license like this would be anathema to scholarly and academic researchers. But scholarly and academic researchers have to cite their sources and have their work evaluated by outside authorities (either peer-reviewers or their professors) while fiction writers don’t have quite the same obligation to acknowledge their sources or have their use of those sources evaluated in some way.

It used to be that librarians and information literacy instructors were convinced that research was one thing, that it all followed the same basic steps and that those steps could be captured in a brief checklist (aka the ACRL Standards). We’ve understood that this isn’t actually the case for quite a while now but our teaching and the documents that inform our teaching (the ACRL Framework, which replaced the Standards) are only starting to catch up with our understanding of the contextual nature of research. Understanding what fiction writers do can only help us better understand the ways in which context matters to research so that we can pass that knowledge on to our students and make our instruction more meaningful to them in the long run.

Something that can be taught (but maybe isn’t)

My sabbatical project specifically focuses on creative writing pedagogy—in other words, how creative writing is taught and why it’s taught that way. When you start to dig in to creative writing pedagogy, you run into a lot of arguments that there are only certain aspects of writing that can be taught, like how to structure a plot or how to write dialogue. The rest is down to talent/genius. Therefore, the job of the creative writing teacher isn’t to teach a student how to write but to identify the special few students who have the talent needed to become writers.

Obviously, there are a lot of critiques of that argument but, based on what I’ve learned so far, it still seems to stand as one of the fundamental underlying assumptions about creative writing and the teaching of creative writing to this day.

What’s bizarre about this is that you would think that if there is one aspect of the writing process that is teachable, it would be research. Yet I don’t remember this ever being touched on in my own creative writing program when I was a student.

It might just be that I have a bad memory. In my readings and some interviews I’m planning with creative writing teachers, I’m planning to find out. But I think there’s a good chance that research is being  more or less left out of creative writing instruction and I’m guessing there are a couple of reasons why. First is that research is considered the realm of composition instruction rather than creative writing—never mind that composition instruction is all about academic research and that there are important differences between academic and creative research. Second is that creative writing programs purport to teach students about the “craft” of writing rather than the “process” of writing and research is considered part of the process rather than part of the craft. Which seems both inaccurate and unfair considering how often fiction writers who do talk about research talk about doing it “wrong” (by not, as Stephen King says, putting it in the back of the back of the story) while never saying much or anything about how to do it right. This implies that there is some technique involved but what that technique looks like is never really explored.

So what all of this amounts to is that I want to investigate the role of research in fiction writing because it’s a topic I have a lot of personal curiosity about and also because I’m frustrated at how little information seems to be out there. It’s a significant gap in knowledge. One that I know I tripped over in my own fiction writing activities more than once.

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