Research for Fiction: a Tangled Web of Trouble, or Strong Foundation? with guest blogger, Jacqueline Sheehan

I’ve just started a new novel, and as with each of the other six novels, I thought I wouldn’t need to do so much research this time. Why do I even imagine that this will be the case? It has never been so and will never be so.

Fiction writers create worlds for our characters to live in and we need authenticity. We need markers for time, other than letting the reader know that the date is 1971. What song was playing on the radio in 1971, how much did a gallon of gas cost, and if my character turned on the evening news, what might they see?

Writers tend to fall into two camps, those who love research and those who loathe it. I am in the first camp, despite my initial protests. The problem is, I love it too much and unless I set firm limits on the goal of my research, I can easily fall down the rabbit hole of endless historical and social connections and I won’t see the light of day for weeks.  My new novel has two timelines and one is in 1938. I could spend the rest of my life researching this fascinating year. I am already cinching up the safety belt around my waist to keep me from disappearing.

Unless you want to spend far longer on your book than you need to, follow a few simple rules about research.

  • It’s okay to delve deeply into a subject. For example, the opioid crisis in rural America, which played a major role in my recent novel, The Tiger in the House. But remember that people are reading a novel, not a court document, and they do not want to be lectured.
  • Give essential tidbits of information in a natural way and only when it is essential to the plot.
  • Let dialogue be your friend. Dialogue is powerful and keeps us in the moment. Allow critical information to come from conversation. Ex: “My niece overdosed on heroin.” This carries more emotion and may provide character motivation than reading a summary of overdose statistics.
  • The need for research is modified by the Point of View. For example, in first person POV, the readers experiences the world through the eyes of the protagonist. It is a narrow focus and most information is filtered through the main character. If the character is a twelve year old child, we have to gauge our research to her experience and not beyond it. With third person POV, the view is broader, and with omniscient POV, the view is endless.

Research can be a joy or an enemy, depending on your approach. If you are like me, you might need to keep the brakes on the research and get back to the fiction.

Jacqueline Sheehan is the New York Times bestselling author of: The Comet’s TaleLost & Found, Now & ThenPicture ThisThe Center of the World, and The Tiger in the House.  She will be leading a workshop this Saturday, October 7 on Research and Backstory at Writers in Progress.  More info here.

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