Research in Fiction

Since I write both fiction and nonfiction (a woman has to earn a living), people often ask about the differences between the two. It’s happened that on nonfiction projects, when those of us involved are struggling over how to present some complex technical issue, my colleagues will say it must be so much easier to “just make it up.” Oh?

Tarifa, Spain

Tarifa, looking toward Jebel Musa, a setting in one of my novels (photo: Manfred Werner, Creative Commons)

Thoughtful fiction writers put an enormous amount of research into their work. Obviously science fiction and techno-thriller writers do. It’s the grounding in realistic possibility that lets the reader travel alongside them. Writers in other genres do, too, perhaps less obviously. Research is why I joke that the FBI may show up on my doorstep any time now, given the amount of Internet digging I’ve done into terrorism and weapons. General research on these topics provides an endless stream of ideas and themes for plot development.

In last week’s post, I wrote about the importance of “details.” Research is also how the writer develops and manages those details and avoids errors. If I need a tree in the yard of a house in Princeton, I know what grows here (weedy locusts, draped in poison ivy). But if the house is in Rome, I have to find out what kinds of trees I’d find there. Then I can write that the patio was “thickly shaded by a fragrant sweet bay tree,” rather than “there was a tree in the yard.” Such specific details make a story more vivid in the mind of the reader. While it takes a few seconds to read those eight words, it may have taken an hour to do the research and weigh the arboreal options.

I remember reading a thriller set in Washington, D.C., where a character took a cab and checked the meter for the fare. Alas, in that time period, D.C. cabs used a zone system for establishing fares. There were no meters (there are now). Neither the author—nor his editor—had Washington cred, and I don’t want my readers distracted by such slip-ups.

Research provides essential local color. One of my plots takes the protagonist to Tarifa, Spain. I’ve been to Tarifa, but I can’t say I remember it in detail and didn’t take many pictures. So I did photo research, creating a file of streetscape snapshots that helped me envision where the characters walked, the kinds of restaurants they ate in, the weather, and the local youth culture’s kite-surfing obsession. Research on Tarifa hotels gave ideas about room layouts, décor, city views, and the like. So when I write that Archer Landis could look over the rooftops of Tarifa’s low whitewashed buildings across the Mediterranean to the Rif mountains in northern Morocco, I know that is in fact possible.

Research does more than enable accurate and detailed description. It also can uncover details that fuel the plot. In my novel set in Rome, one of the bad guys hides out in Riano, a small town north of Rome. Riano has a public webcam that shows live pictures of its main square. After watching that camera a while, I created a scene in which the Rome police spot Nic and his girlfriend shopping in the open-air market and set the local police on their trail.

A totally different kinds of research I’ve done is to read works in Italian side-by-side with the English translation, to try to get a feel for the language. Whether this has been at all useful, I can’t say, but it was fun. More practical are the discussion forums of where I’ve asked Rome locals about current street slang.

Maps are essential: police precincts, neighborhood boundaries, building layouts, including floorplans I create. Google Maps street-level views and geo-coded photos, ditto.

I am in awe of those who write historical fiction, some of whom have developed encyclopedic period knowledge. Alan Furst (Europe in the run-up to World War II) and Patrick O’Brian (the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars) come to mind. Not only do they have to get the settings and clothing and historical details correct (no war before its time), changes in speech and language have been enormous. A teen character from a hundred years ago cannot convincingly say, “Whatever,” and the author cannot just write whatever, either.

In a recent interview, author Pinckney Benedict describes the research he did for the short story “The World, the Flesh, and the Devil,” which is told from the point of view of a highly trained fighter pilot. Benedict not only read extensively about fighter pilots and how they think, he spent hours debriefing a friend who was a Marine Phantom pilot in Vietnam, and he also cobbled together “a convincing flight simulator” in his basement and spent many hours in it, following the flight path of the character in the story. Research, he told the interviewer, “makes me ecstatic.”

I collect all my research for a novel in a three-ring binder, which includes the photos and maps like those mentioned above. It has a divider for the basics: the calendar for the year the story takes place, the times of sunrise and sunset in the city, and the phases of the moon for the appropriate season. I can’t have a full moon on a Tuesday and another one the following Sunday. I make notes about time zone differences, so I only have to look them up once. It has newspaper or magazine articles generally related to the subject matter of the story and details about clues I’ve planted or weapons used. This notebook is my personal encyclopedia, and I refer to it often. It keeps me consistent. It keeps me from “just making it up.”