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:
I must respectfully disagree with Mr. Marshall’s black-and-white approach and instead embrace a shade of gray. I know for a fact that immersion research can hold inestimable value, having recently taken a trip to one of the settings for my wip, a little town on the coast of Maine. I think the key to any immersive experience is ensuring it doesn’t last too long (I was in Castine, ME for one day only, but it was enough time to interview people, walk around the town, even take a trip out on Penobscot Bay with a chatty local). Gather your impressions in a notebook or on a tape recorder, and then get back to your keyboard ASAP.
As for spot research, while I agree you shouldn’t stop writing to identify the brand name of a product, for example, I think there are times you should not only break “the flow” but also emerge from the river, shake yourself off and gaze around for the road not taken. Consider spot research if the outcome may do the following for your wip:
• Add conflict to the scene. I broke from my story once after my trip to Maine to research boating in more detail and learned why my characters shouldn’t go out on the water late in the fall. I was able to cull new and authentic conflict from this information, which made it a valuable bit of spot research.
• Grow realism. For another of my stories—not my wip, but rather one of my RIPs—I took a few minutes to research investigator’s assistants. I discovered that pigs are often used to help sniff out trouble, and suddenly I had myself a new and vital pork-pie of a character.
• Provide you with a (better) hook. The hook for my current wip came out of researching antiques, and I am more than a little grateful to have stumbled upon this fascinating lore. What if you think you already have a hook? Sometimes it comes down to following your gut.
• Evolve the action. This has happened to me several times when I’ve taken a few minutes to research the nitty-gritty specifics of a new setting. I’ve discovered geographical nooks that provide the perfect backdrop for a scene, forcing the characters into a conversation they may not have had otherwise.
If the research has no chance of evolving into anything resembling story gold, do as Marshall suggests and let it lie; add a “TKTKTKTK” to remind yourself to go back during the second draft and add missing details.
Speaking of…time for me to get back to work!