My approach to creative research for fiction writing

Image by Bishwas Bajracharya from Pixabay

In the few years I’ve spent investigating the role of research in creative writing, I’ve started thinking a lot about the role research plays in my own creative work, and how that’s changed as a result of my scholarly work.

I write fiction for fun, which I know is a statement that is likely to make a lot of professional writers grind their teeth at least a little. In saying that writing is a form of play for me, I’m not trying to trivialize or diminish what professional writers do or how much work it is. But in this life there are people who knit without the goal of one day becoming a fashion designer. There are people who run without the goal of one day becoming an Olympic athlete. And there are people who write without the goal of one day becoming a bestselling author. Or even getting published.

Because fiction writing is a form of play for me, I don’t focus that much on the quality of what I’m writing. Questions of authenticity and accuracy are pretty much moot. Which means research is pretty moot too. So except for a quick Google search here or there, I have always tended to paper over gaps in my knowledge with imagination or, frankly, BS.  What does it matter? No one’s ever going to see any of it.

But in studying creative research, I thought it might be interesting to start practicing some of what I was trying to preach. Or at least attempt to explore the role of research in my own work so that when I talk to authors about their creative research, I have some experience of my own to work from.

So I recently finished a novel-length story that I’ve been working on for roughly a year and a half. I have a drawer full of stories like this—finished drafts of works that I have little or no intention of returning to. This time, rather than moving on to the next idea or the next project, I felt compelled to go back and actually try to revise what I had done. If nothing else, I wanted to spend more time with these characters and, after spending a lot of time reading about revision, I wanted to see what the process was actually like.

My approach to this so far has been to take things one chapter at a time. I read what I wrote and as I do, I identify areas that need to be shored up on some way. Some of these areas have to do with background writing—actually sitting down and figuring out what some of these characters’ histories are, as well as the histories of their relationships with each other. Others are more research-related. I’m finding those areas where I papered over a lack of knowledge with BS and trying to find real information that will help me fill them in and perhaps make them more authentic.

The best example so far has to do with bartending. One of the characters owns a bar and two of them work there. One is a longtime bartender with a lot of experience. The other is new and doesn’t really know what he’s doing yet and he keeps screwing up. So the character who is a longtime bartender is trying to teach the newbie some of what he knows so that the newbie can avoid getting fired. A lot of these “teaching” scenes are told from the point of view of the veteran bartender.

I know nothing about bartending. Or mixing drinks. Or alcohol in general. So when I wrote this scene originally, it was a lot of BS. I had no real sense of what advice the veteran bartender would be giving his new co-worker or even what kinds of mistakes a new bartender in this situation might make, whether with mixing drinks or any of the other work involved. The dialogue and descriptions were filled with placeholders and generalities. Nothing like how a veteran bartender would probably talk or think about their work.

Ideally, my research on this topic would have involved actually going to the bar the one in the story is loosely based on and maybe talking to the people who work there about what they do. Or maybe even finding a way to get some firsthand experience. I actually did look into going to bartending school but the $600 and time commitment seemed like a lot for a story that I am still only working on for fun. And actually going to the bar in question was complicated by COVID, at least for the time being. Besides that, I haven’t really figured out how to approach people for an interview for a creative work, considering I have no credentials in this area.

Anyway. I ended up doing a lot of Googling and found some great websites and YouTube videos where professional bartenders talk about what they do. It’s not enough to get a sense of the day-to-day work, necessarily, but it was enough that I was able to get some specific details that I could use in the scene, including a specific kind of drink the characters are making and the common mistakes people make when preparing that specific drink.

After finding that information, the trick was deciding how to work it into the scene in a way that felt natural to what was happening in the story. It took a couple of passes before I was able to create dialogue where the veteran bartender character sounded like he was speaking from experience rather than reciting information from an instructional YouTube video he’d just watched. It’s not perfect yet and I’m not convinced the “authenticity” of it would pass the sniff test for a reader with real bartending experience. But it’s better than what was there before.

This isn’t the only thing I’ve researched so far but the experience of researching this particular topic was one that made it very clear to me, if it wasn’t already, that the process and practice of creative research, like academic and scholarly research, involves a lot of skills related to finding, evaluating, and using information but that the use of those skills is different enough that creative research deserves to be recognized as its own unique form of research. This is especially true when it comes to using the information you find: in a scholarly and academic paper, you highlight the sources you used through citation whereas in a creative work like a novel, you have to conceal your research in order to make it a seamless part of the story.

It’s a huge challenge, and one I look forward to practicing more in my own work.

One thought on “My approach to creative research for fiction writing

  1. We’re truly blessed by the internet, because I wonder how writers back in the day used to do their research, short of your original plan to visit a bar and approach people out of the blue to talk about their jobs. Great stuff here. I enjoyed this read!

    Liked by 1 person

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