Saturday, October 29, 2011

Birth of a Book, Part 2: Research

This is the second part of a ten part series on the process of producing a novel.

Last week I wrote about the role of inspiration in the creation of a novel. While inspiration is critical to the ultimate success of a novel, it can land an author in a difficult situation. Lucky is the novelist whose inspiration is for a novel set in a familiar place and time. If that is the case, it’s easy to get started right away. This is one reason why many teachers of creative writing recommend their students “write about things they know” and the reason why many successful “novels” are thinly disguised autobiography.

However, if the inspiration is a call to write about an environment with which the author is not already intimately familiar, then a great deal of research is required before the actual writing begins. As a historian, I am particularly fanatical about this point, but it applies to books set in different countries, classes, generations and work-places as well as books set in different time periods. For example, if you want to write a book about a contemporary police officer, pilot, or professional athlete but have never done the work of a policeman/pilot/athlete, you need to do some serious research before you even start. The same goes for a novel set in a different country – even if your characters have your own nationality. No novel, no matter how inspired the plot-line or sympathetic the characters will succeed if the environment in which the action occurs is flat, vague or blatantly inaccurate. Remember, if your book is set in modern times, it is far easier for readers familiar with the milieu you describe to spot errors, inconsistencies or lack of depth -- and complain loudly in reviews.

Good research is therefore almost always part of the writing process and it has four very important benefits. First, good research will enable the novelist to produce a vivid environment – an effective and colorful stage on which the characters can act. In other words, research will yield up details about places, professions, customs, contemporary culture, technology and fashion – all things which will enable the novelist to evoke the scenery, surroundings and life-style of the protagonists in the novel.

Second, research may impact the shape of the novel itself. I have often found that the shadowy outline of the book that emerged from the initial idea starts to take on clear contours and may even change shape significantly as research progresses. Research may in the extreme reveal that an original idea was implausible, but usually also suggests an alternative that works better than the original.

Third, research can help give the characters clearer features and defining traits. The more one knows about the environment in which the characters need to operate, the easier it is to understand them – how they think, why they act certain ways, what they are likely to feel in certain situations. Research will help you visualize the kind of dreams they are likely to have, and help you understand the fears and inhibitions they will have absorbed from the society around them. Learning about the culture, social structures, educational and judicial systems of a novel’s proposed setting enables a novelist to give the ghostly figures of early inspiration flesh, blood, and depth of character – not to mention the right clothes and personal habits.

Finally, research usually uncovers so many intriguing new facts about an unfamiliar place, time, or milieu that inspiration follows. Long before I’ve finished with the research for one novel, I usual have several ideas for other novels set in the same environment. Thus research is rather like investment, returning far more than one spends on it in terms of quality products and new ideas.









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