Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Creative Writing 101: Importance of Research


Aspiring writers are often told to "write about things they know" and, following this advice, many authors don't think they need to do any research before they sit down to write. While this might be true for a completely autobiographical work, any author interested in writing more than one autobiography will rapidly realize that research is not only necessary but liberating.

After all, for a literate population, knowledge need not be first hand, and good research expands exponentially the topics that we can write about without violating the rule to "write about things you know." The fact is, most of what we “know” we have learned indirectly either formally or informally. We have listened to experts in the classroom, attended lectures and seminars, and taken part in discussions and private conversations. We have read newspapers, magazines, academic journals and books. We’ve seen documentary films and TV programs. If we want to learn about a specific topic and become experts in it, we can. For a novelist, this means that “writing about what you know” need not mean writing about your own experiences, but rather writing about places, periods, professions, and events that you have thoroughly and professionally researched. 

The operative phrase here is "thoroughly and professionally researched." Reading one article, watching one TV program or making a quick check of "the facts" on wikipedia does not qualify.  If you’re going to write a book about a fireman in New York on September 11, 2001, then you better carefully research everything about the New York Fire Department’s organization, equipment, social structure, and internal culture as well as the exact timing, sequence and impact of each terrorist attack. 

Keep in mind that good research does not interfere with a book, but rather enhances it.  It provides the background and context for the story; it lends the book authenticity. If a book reads like a device to lecture the reader on the technology or religion or social structures of a different place or time, then the author has failed. But if a book allegedly set in a different place or time is filled with anachronisms and inaccuracies, then the book is just a much a failure and no amount of brilliance in delivery (style) can save it.  Great fiction must be both authentic and literary.   

The temptation is to write quasi-autobiographical books, but that gets harder with each novel. It can be difficult to handle a wide-range of themes, to develop significantly different plots and populate the book with recognizably different characters, if the setting is always the same.


The more difficult, but more rewarding, route is to do research and learn about different cultures, periods and places. If nothing else, you will be a better educated person, enriched by knowledge of things you could not have imagined so that, even if you write fantasy, you you find your imagination has been stimulated in new ways.

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