Research: a burden, or a writer’s best friend?

By Donna Gillespie

Whenever I complain over the fact I seem to need at least ten or twelve years per book, I nearly always hear these words of comfort — “But of course. You have to do all that research.”

At first I’m tempted to agree — after all, the person is trying to help me out. But the fact is, it’s nowhere near true.

Actually the research might be the least aggravating, most straightforward part of writing an historical novel. If you can read, you can do research. Research is fun — even a heart-pounding thrill if you’re in love with your subject matter, almost to the Indiana Jones-and-the-Temple-of-Doom level. I can fancy myself a hero-archeologist bravely unearthing facts that will rock my characters’ worlds. At the least I’d compare it to a treasure hunt where you almost always find the treasure. Research helps you shape your story, and on a good day it can even suggest a nifty plot complication, fully formed, little assembly required. While researching your story, you can fantasize you’re a sculptor or painter sniffing around for “found objects” to use in an art piece. (Now, incorporating that research — that’s a whole other ball of wax. One pitfall — falling prey to what we used to call “research rapture” in Leonard Bishop’s group. That’s when you can’t part with any of the succulent facts you’ve rounded up and so you use them all, and end up doubling your book’s length.) But doing the research just isn’t what causes me to pack in the ten or twelve years.

That award goes to formulating the plot line. That’s the real hair-puller. Finding that story complication that that puts your main character under the right kind of pressure — meaningful pressure. Discovering the scenes that bring out new aspects of your characters’ personalities; setting up the kinds of problems that open  out the story. Each plot complication must pluck the right emotional note in a reader’s mind. A story line itself can be a kind of poetry; some plot twists seem to thrum archetypal chords for reasons baffling to name; others don’t. Coming up with plot complications that feel right, that hopefully will linger in memory — now that’s what’s hard.

Historical novels do require massive amounts of research — they’re born from it, in a way, like a lotus out of the swamp, and they’re closely guided by it as the book progresses. But sometimes I think research is overrated — at least for novelists, not for writers of historical nonfiction. An historical novelist must be an artist first. You’d lose your audience otherwise. You’re using impressionistic techniques to spark a reader’s imagination. When lost in the excitement of a scene, a reader receives the impression that a book has revealed much more about a period of history than the author, in fact, has. And consider this — if new archaeological discoveries happened to negate a fact an author has woven into an older book you love, would you suddenly love the book less? Has the story somehow become invalid? Or did its “validity” rest on something else all along — all that alchemy involved in the writer’s ability to make a time period come alive? In crankier moments I think expecting to learn history from an historical novel is like trying to learn botany by studying impressionist paintings of trees. There’s truth in those trees; it just isn’t literal truth.

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21 Responses to Research: a burden, or a writer’s best friend?

  1. This is a beautiful piece, Donna! Poetry in itself. I had never looked at historical fiction in quite this way…but it rings true, as you say. Thank you! Cathy

  2. Thanks, Cathy! I was afraid I blathered on a bit…

  3. Thanks for the “like,” Char!

    • Char says:

      As Cathy & Mark can tell you, I’ve struggled with finding those moments in the factual accounts to weave in my fiction. I love the research aspects, too, but dread throwing anachronisms into my 12th century story or getting the details wrong. It’s a hairy process.

      • I live in fear of anachronisms, too. I think the most dangerous situation is when you think you know something — so you don’t look it up. Why would you? It’s not even on your radar. This is one of the best things about writing groups — with their combined stores of information, someone’s bound to catch you out. In our group, taken together, I think they cover just about every era. We have one member who’s a walking encyclopedia — on the book I’m working on now, he saved me from confusing the hemp used for clothing with the hemp that you smoke (related species but not the same).

  4. “meaningful pressure” – I’ve been having problems with this myself. I love the research, and adding in little tidbits that I’ve found to make my world realistic, but I’ve always struggled with finding what’s the biggest problem *for my world*. Because it wouldn’t be the same as the biggest problems now. And then I read about every new discovery of the time period (pre-history, so there are many discoveries left) and I think “did I get it wrong? Will anyone believe this?”

    I think that as long as you have characters that people can connect to, they can forgive you for “facts” that may change during research. The human experience is always going to be the same, even if the historical theories change.

    • Thanks, Rebecca! You’re right; it takes a lot of research just to discover the right problem for your world. I remember, in the very early stages of my first book I’d planned to have Marcus be the architect who designed the Colosseum. But gradually, as I did more research and got deeper into the culture, I realized this totally wouldn’t work. Architects were mere craftspeople in Roman society, with no real power. And to be a “player” in my world, he needed to have power. Though I resisted it at first, the more I learned, the more I realized I had no choice but to make him an aristocrat. Of all the aspects of research, for me, understanding the society — what’s possible, what isn’t — is the trickiest.
      Your work sounds interesting. What period of prehistory are you writing about?

      • Marcus is one of my favorite characters ever – I think you did a great job with him.

        My current novel is a fantasy blend of Native American and ancient Briton tribal culture. At least I can make things up, because it’s not actually a “historical” novel, but I do try to make it as realistic as possible. I’ve had several occasions where a critique partner says “um, there’s no way this would happen”. I just finished a major re-write based on one little world-building critique that wasn’t believable for that type of culture.

        It’s also so nice to hear you spend so much time on your drafts – I’ve been working on this monster for ten years now, and I’m kinda getting sick of it 😉 I never had any intention to publish it when I started writing it in college, but it just wont leave me alone.

    • You’re right; fantasy doesn’t get you out of having to do research. Cultures have to be consistent. And it’s good to know a lot about myth and folklore, too.
      Ten years is just a warm-up! Sounds like you’re doing just fine. I didn’t really have any intention of publishing when I started, either — it just seemed too impossible. I just wanted to impress my writing group!

  5. Bryn Hammond says:

    I’m an old fan of Auriane’s. Just want to say, strength to your arm with the third. But no rush. I admire that you spend 10-12 years on your books, I think that’s great, and even better now you’ve told me why. Amen to your whole post. A story that doesn’t age though the research has to age – that’s what to aim for. On the other hand research is addictive, with the properties of addictive substances: tremendous fun, untstoppable, easily overused. Whatever the state of history, the portrait of societies in Auriane’s story won’t go out of date for me – like a painting, as you say, that’s an artistic take on the tree, cogent in itself, truer than the latest photograph. But the storytelling is the stand-out, your storytelling’s so grabby, and if I wondered how that happens, I figure you’ve here explained. Thanks for the books.

  6. Vanessa says:

    Oh wow, it made my night to find this blog post! I was afraid you stopped writing! I just wanted to pop in and say I love your books. They are the only ones I’ve re-read more than once. The Light Bearer in part inspired me to follow my love of history and now I have a BA in History and Classical Civilization! I write for fun on the weekends, and I hope that if I ever get around to publishing something, that it will be as brilliant and memorable as your books, or very close to your level of writing. I love the history you sprinkle into your books, but most of all, I love the stories (I am a sucker for Decius, more, please?). I am looking forward to the next one, though, no rush, eh? I will await patiently, it will be all the sweeter when it’s done. 😀

    • Thank you, Vanessa! Donna will be so pleased when she reads this! CJH

    • Thanks so much, Vanessa! What a treat it is to hear all this! I’m ecstatic to hear that I inspired you to study ancient history — for someone who’s written an historical novel, feedback doesn’t get better than that! I already have a couple of Decius scenes in this book; I promise I’ll try to squeeze in a few more. And thanks for not getting impatient with me. I made a lot of excuses in that blog post, but I suspect that I really am a slow writer.
      Thanks again, and I wish you the best of luck with your writing!

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  10. cinzia8 says:

    What I like about research is not only what I learn (I also almost put sunflowers in 5th century tuscany) but the experts and scholars one meets along the way. It’s sad that some are writing so quickly to meet publishing demands that they often have more than a few historical errors and anachronisms in their work.

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