Sunday’s entry in The Writer’s Almanac described the life of Parisian novelist Émile Zola. Born in 1840, Zola became one of the first fiction writers to incorporate realism into his work through extensive research—visiting sites he wrote about, conducting interviews, etc… Sometimes referred to as immersion research, this type of personal experience can add a lot of depth to an author’s work as s/he can draw from firsthand perceptions. Authors still do this kind of work today; we learned during the second part of our interview with Audrey Niffenegger that she’s currently moonlighting as a tour guide in a London cemetery to research her wip, Her Fearful Symmetry.
Some industry pros believe immersion research can be dangerous, however. Agent Evan Marshall, for example, advises his clients not to let research become a too-big factor in storytelling. In The Marshall Plan Workbook, he acknowledges the importance of background research—anything pertinent to understanding the subject of your novel or time period in which the novel is set, but he cautions authors to set limits otherwise s/he may never get to the work of writing.
If the novelist resists the temptation to be sidetracked, which can lead to dangerous immersion, then the background research process has a definite end, and the plotting phase can begin.
His suggestion for limiting background research is to decide from the beginning what you need to know; answer those questions without allowing yourself to be sidetracked, and then sit down and write.
Marshall also advises avoiding a stall for the gathering of details—called spot research—at all costs.
When I’m plotting or writing a novel, I force myself never to stop to do spot research. I do all that when my first draft is completed and printed out. Since I don’t let myself stop to research, I have no excuse to stop writing.
James Michener advocated this approach as well, however he was also a fan of author immersion and often had a lot of research to draw on before writing.
Personally, I think it must be easier to “go with the flow” when you have an awareness of all possible currents ahead of time, don’t you? So what’s the answer? Does an answer even exist? Here’s the Writer Unboxed take on research, for what it’s worth: [Read more…]