I thought I’d take a moment and write about a kind of research that many people have not engaged in, that is, doing research for fictional writing.
Now, I am not going to write about the research that must occur for real historical fiction. That genre not only requires knowledge of the rules for writing fiction, but also of the rules for writing history. Sometimes it is done well, sometimes it can read as if you are passing through one notecard to another.
Rather, I’m talking about doing the research that is needed to help pull the reader into the mind of the writer’s characters. Scents, sounds, sights, the feel of the physical world, language and accents – all can help create a deeper sense of involvement and realism. Young writers are often taught that they should only write about what they know. But most of us have lives that intersect with many different types of people and locations, all of which must be presented carefully.
For those who are reading this who do not write fiction, you should understand that the struggle, at times a BATTLE, to pull the readers into a character’s reality is central to the success of fiction. For ultimately, writing exists in the minds of readers, not writers.
Sometimes, the task is simple. If you are writing about a culture you are not intimately familiar with, a little research on another culture’s cuisine can launch the reader into a dinner party in…Riyadh. Or Nairobi. Or Stockholm. The research task can be as simple as finding an appropriate, authentic restaurant. Or talking to someone from the culture, or reading a cookbook. Shain Library has some food-related sources that can also be extremely useful, such as:
One of the trickiest areas to deal with is different forms of speech and colloquialism. Again, if you are only writing about people you know, this can be easy. But don’t we all know people from other cultures and places, regions of this country? And if your characters are lodged in an historical era different from your own, how do you handle that? It doesn’t have to be a matter of centuries; what about characters in the 1960s, for instance?
For characters representing different cultures, different areas of the United States, different ethnic groups – speech and dialect can add to honest and realistic portrayals. There are many published works on all languages and dialects that can assist a writer with this. For instance, if you search OneSearch, using a subject heading like:
English language – Dialects – United States
you can find books such as:
American Dialects: A Manual for Actors, Directors, and Writers, Lewis Herman and Marguerite Shalett Herman, New York: Routledge, 1997. Shain PN2071.F6 H39 1997
You can find a wide variety of books across the CTW collections. For more specialized linguistic areas, try searching WorldCat, or asking a reference librarian for help.
A cautionary note: When you are trying to represent language differences in your writing, you must consciously balance honest representation against the readers’ expectations (and possible biases.) People may think that everyone in Boston pahks their cah in Hahvahd Yahd. But, in reality, most people park their car in Harvard Yard (…if in fact they could park there at all, which they cannot!) There can be real tensions between readers’ beliefs and biases, and how people really behave and want to be represented, and these tensions must be presented sensitively.
The internet has also opened up great possibilities for this kind of research. As with any kind of research on the open internet, be careful about the validity of sites and their “facts.” Caution is called for when you are using information that builds characters and their attitudes and experiences.
The internet can be particularly useful when you are searching for information about geographic settings. Open searching on Google, and restricting the search to images, can turn up many usable images – images that can be useful to get a feel for settings that you might not be able to visit, or that you have visited but not lived in. Geographic locations, types of buildings, historic locations, etc., are all easily searched and will turn up a multitude of mood-creating photos. Venice, for instance: if you’ve never experienced that city, or that city beyond its most famous locations, consider this photo and the feeling it generates:
Pursuing images of this sort can assist a writer in turning their vision into the written word.
Google maps is also a rich location to mine for local geographic information. In years past, hunting through atlases was a common activity for some people writing fiction. Most of that can now be done easily on Google maps.
Finally, can too much research get in the way?
More appropriately, this question should be: Can a writer overuse the results of extensive research? The answer to that question can always be yes, whether the project is a fiction-based work, or a traditional academic work. If an academic writer is writing a review article on a subject, extensive presentation of research is warranted. But when you are using research to answer and support
positions, careful selection of the most relevant and appropriate sources is important.
The same is even truer when integrating research into fictional writing. What effect are you hoping for? How does research support that effect, or that development of a particular character? Simple facts, with a single evocative adjective can often be the solution. One example: He sipped the strong coffee, and the sharp sweet taste spread through his mouth. The careful, unobtrusive presentation of a fact that strikes sensory or emotional notes has much greater effect that a large presentation on Turkish coffee.
Always remember the questions you are seeking to answer, the effect you are reaching for. Use the facts and knowledge you achieve through research to address those things as simply and honestly as possible.