Ask almost anyone on LinkedIn and they’ll tell you: I’m good at research.
(That was probably the most inside joke that can be insided. For that, I apologize.)
I consider myself a lifelong learner. I fell in love with science in college and have yet to look back. Many of my story ideas come from reading about things in science and history. Many writers aren’t like that. Some prefer to wing it and research later. Others prefer to just rely on their imagination entirely. We won’t talk about that latter group.
I’ve found that research is a necessity for many stories, but can also complicate writing. Let’s explore those thoughts.
A lot of writing advice I’ve read (especially recently, what with NaNoWriMo and all) says to just write and worry about research later. Bradbury, one of my literary idols, recommended the same thing. He believed the best stories were purely imaginative. That’s probably why he was ballsy enough to lie to his readers in the interest of a story well told. In The Martian Chronicles he fully admits that he didn’t care there was no atmosphere on Mars. He put one there because it served to stories he wanted to tell. 451 degrees fahrenheit isn’t the temperature at which paper burns, despite what he would have you believe in Fahrenheit 451.
The logic is that you’ll have to rewrite anyway, so it’s best to get the story on paper as quickly as possible. After all, that is the most difficult part of writing – the writing part. I disagree. To use Bradbury as an example again, he also advocated reading every night. One poem, one short story, and one nonfiction article. He recommends this because it expands the writer’s imagination with more knowledge. When Bradbury was writing purely from imagination, his imagination was filled with facts and figures from the things he read at night. That was his way of doing research.
Other authors are different. Some try to hew a bit more closely to reality. I’m one of those writers. For me, research becomes important even before writing. For one, often time research will lead to other ideas to explore. I’ve recently been doing research for The Manifest Destiny and it has given me ideas for other chapters, and given me ways to elaborate on ideas in already written chapters.
During NaNoWriMo I also learned that if you start to write something you don’t know, it will be useless. There are some things that you should have an idea of before writing, especially if those things set the tone for the rest of the story. My problem happened in the very first chapter. It revolves heavily around the way United States legislation works. I had an idea of how it works (I did minor in Political Science in college – not that I retained much), but on actually starting to do my research I realized that everything I had written was way off base. On getting into deeper research recently, including reading declassified materials similar to what I’m writing about, my original vision for the chapter was not only wrong, but less interesting.
I’m of the mind that truth is often stranger (or more interesting) than fiction. There is a lot of room for embellishments and prognostications in reality that do not negate the creativity involved. The fun in writing creatively is taking a piece of reality and exploring it. That can be as simple as exploring a boy/girl relationship, or as complicated as describing the innerworkings of an ion sail propulsion system for an interstellar starship.
What separates artists from non-artists is the artists ability to take a slice of reality and explore it. Offer differing perspectives. Find some deeper meaning. Offer a greater truth. But it all starts with research. How else is the reader supposed to buy into the world we’re creating? By understanding your subject you can better bring your reader into your world more quickly and easily, allowing them to cut right to the heart of the matter: Your story. Your perspective. Your deeper meaning. Or your greater truth.
Despite my belief in research being necessary to believable and powerful writing, it can also complicate the process and bog you down. It can be difficult to know when is too much. It’s more difficult to resist the urge to show off and yell at your reader, “Look what I learned! Isn’t this interesting? Aren’t you glad I’m now regurgitating it to you and neglecting the things you actually care about i.e. my characters, plot, etc.?”
The Manifest Destiny is running the risk of this. Even the political machinations of the U.S. Government aren’t really simple enough to create a compelling, easily followed storyline. Corners will need to be cut. Processes simplified or glossed over completely. Because as much as my first chapter relies on my characters (and therefore, me) understanding how Federal funding works, it’s not important to or for the reader. But I also can’t lose the reader by being too vague. That’s the balance to strike between believability and overcomplication.
Just today, while researching actually, I read a story from famed Science Fiction/Cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson called “Atmosphera Incognita.” It was well-written, and well-researched, but didn’t grab me because it became so dense in parts. Admittedly, this is partially the fault of the reader. I was reading an anthology consisting of a mixture of science-heavy non-fiction articles and short fiction based on the science in the articles. Stephenson’s story was definitely in the right place.
The issue I had with it was that he spent so much time building his world, explaining the mechanics and history of the building at the center of the story, that I began to lose interest. The reason I started to lose interest was simple, because the story was so focused on making me believe in this feat of engineering there was no room to give me a character to identify with and hold on to. The narrator is somewhat interesting on a surface level, but she’s rarely active in the story and because she’s the one explaining these concepts, you never get to know her very well, either. Now, Neal Stephenson is a very successful writer whereas I’m just some guy with access to an internet connection, so I will definitely allow that I missed something in the story. But that doesn’t change my initial impression.
This brings me to my second belief about writing: A story needs to relate back to something relatable to a typical person. This is where the perspective/meaning/truth comes in again. People are going to be the ones reading your story. People with hopes, dreams, fears, ideas, and viewpoints. If they can’t find a reflection of any of those things in your writing, that decreases the chances that they’ll enjoy it or take anything from it.
Everything I just wrote above isn’t always true. Again, Bradbury is a good example to use (and a good way to bookend everything). The Martian Chronicles, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have much in the way of hard research-based factual writing. But what it does have is strong perspectives, deeper meanings, and greater truths. Bradbury was talented enough to easily build worlds, no matter how fantastic, that a reader could jump into and believe in.
It is also true that not every story needs to be relatable. I recently read a story from Isaac Asimov that was simply an idea explored through various characters you never got to know well in small bites. I still loved it.
My point with all this, and perhaps this says more about who I want to be as a writer than what I think writers should be in general, is that the best writing is both honest and believable, and relatable. It is filled with great characters with dramatic conflicts, but also says something or explores an idea greater than the sum of its parts.
That’s the type of writing I like to read, and that’s the type of writing I’d like to write.