The Research Iceberg

by Taffy Cannon

IThe old adage to write what you know is only useful if what you know happens to be interesting, or if your style is so origi­nal and provocative that you could make hedge clipper instructions scintillating.  And if you write fiction, you’re making it up anyway, aren’t you?

Well, yes.  But sooner or later, your fiction is going to lead you into areas that you don’t know much about.  Medieval carpentry, say, or dung beetles.  Research is required.

Most likely this will be a subject that you have a strong personal interest in, so you’ll plunge headlong into that research.  You’ll bury yourself in the library, spend hours online, talk to specialists in the field, hunt down obscure references, visit laboratories, conduct experi­ments.  Each step is likely to suggest more avenues to explore, and before long, you’ll discover that you know a staggering amount about the subject.

This can really be fun, so enjoy it.  One of the finest perks of writing is that when you find a subject that interests you, you can wallow in it for a while.

You may, in fact, have to put some restraints on yourself.

For example, when I wrote Tangled Roots, I did a lot of research.  This mystery was set in the world of flower growing, so I visited greenhouses and talked to growers.  I investigated tissue culture and rose before dawn to go to the Flower Auction, a fascinating daily event where florists gather at a warehouse to bid on carts of flowers pushed across the floor by young women wearing jeans.  I love gardening and growing flowers, so all of this was extremely pleasurable for me.

The book had a very minor subplot involving alstroemeria research, and one day I found myself thinking that I really needed to visit an alstroemeria grower.  An internal voice yelled, “Hey, wait a minute!”  The fact of the matter was that I didn’t need to visit an alstroemeria grower, that I already knew far more about alstroemerias than I needed to know or could possibly use in this book.  Furthermore,  I could continue enjoying this research for years to come.

It was time to stop doing the research and write the book.  And so I did.

So let’s assume now that you’ve completed your research, learned all kinds of intriguing things about meat preservation through the ages or the process that led various species of birds to extinction.  You’re brimming over with excitement about all that you now know about haiku or Mesopotamia or the secret lives of insects.

How do you decide what to use?

Your first impulse, of course, will be to include every fascinat­ing detail you’ve uncovered.  You must at all costs resist that impulse.  You want to tantalize your reader, not anesthetize him.  Remember the ceto­logy chapters in Moby Dick?

Integration is the key here.  You need to weave your research into your story, being flexible enough to let your story change to accommodate the research.

Wherever possible, work your little nuggets into the action.  Have your characters go about the business of cosme­tology without stopping to relate the history of hair dye.  Dialogue can be useful here, but not if a couple of folks sit around discussing subatomic physics.  Nobody is fooled, or interested, if you merely break the material into paragraphs and insert a few taglines.

It may be useful to let your character consult an expert, but do make that expert concise and entertain­ing.  If the material is exceptionally dry, making the expert eccentric will also help.  (Though if the material is really that dry, are you sure you want to use it?)   If your protagonist happens to be the expert, let information flow naturally from her lips, or gracefully through her first-person narrative.

Sometimes research leads you down blind alleys or off the side of a cliff.  If what you had in mind isn’t going to work, don’t panic.  Change your plans, or eliminate the idea, or back up to the last place where things fit and try moving in another direction.  If it turns out that you can’t use the research at all, hang on to your notes and maybe it will be perfect for another project.

The more complex the subject, the more likely you are to make mistakes when you simplify.  Run your final copy past an expert if you possibly can, to save yourself later embarrassment.  If you aren’t sure about something, recheck your sources.  And then, when you and your experts are satisfied, have somebody who knows nothing about the subject read the same material to see if it makes sense.

You’ll discover that you have to leave out a heartbreak­ing amount of material.  Tough.  The time and effort weren’t wasted if the subject interested you in the first place. You can put it on your website, with links to other info about undersea exploration.  Maybe you can use the information in other stories, articles or books.  Share it at lunch or par­ties.  Work it into author talks.  If nothing else, take private pride in being an expert on the construction of sod houses.

Regard your research as an iceberg, figuring that only about 10% of it will actually appear in your manuscript.  The other 90% lurks beneath the surface, giving the material you do use strength and credi­bility because you really know your subject.

So which 10% do you use?  That’s entirely up to you, the expert.

4 Responses

  1. Great advice, Taffy. I printed your iceberg picture and stuck it up on the board as a reminder. I find myself using research as an excuse not to write, especially the historical. Does anyone really need to know the knit gauge of seventeenth century stockings?

  2. Taffy, this is so true. I did an enormous amount of research for the train boo, Death Rides the Zephyr. I used a fraction of it. But I want to sound like I know what I’m taking about, even if I don’t. What to do with all that information? I simply must write another train book.

  3. I laughed, because I know it’s true! A few weeks ago, in a flurry of tossing stuff to make room for–well, just living–I got rid of many, many little notebooks I’d filled with details I’ll never use again. There were half a dozen for Buried in Quilts alone. I saved one tiny page (from back when I took notes by hand while sitting in a reference room) that had details about a historic white-work quilt that used 140 spools of thread for the background alone, not to mention the fancy parts. Having just finished a quilt that’s not as closely quilted as some I’ve made, I knew I’d used only two. I dumped all those other little notebooks, but I couldn’t quite toss that page. Now, though, I’m not sure where it ended up. And it absolutely doesn’t matter.

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