Using Research in Your Writing
By the way, I can’t find the words to say (a writer not being able to find words!) how much I enjoyed the residency and working with all of you to make it such a success. I already miss you all, and eagerly look forward to July — think of warm summer nights on the island, clam bakes, and sea cruises. And, oh, getting some writing done as well.
I will be doing a seminar this summer on using research in your writing, but I thought I’d get some dialogue going now about this topic. Writers use research, most obviously in writing historical fiction, as I sometimes do, but they also use it in writing fiction set in contemporary times, in writing non-fiction, and even in writing poetry. Research can open up windows into many things about your writing, including character, situation, plot, setting, and even helping to establish voice and tone. Most importantly, I think, it also gives the writer a sense of mastery over his or her material: as Hemingway said, a writer should know enough about his subject so that he’s comfortable enough to leave stuff out. Writers need to know both what to put in and what to leave out. When to research, what to research, how to use research in your work to establish credibility, and when to know enough is enough — these are some of the most important questions that writers must ask themselves.
For example, in my last two novels, SOUL CATCHER, and the novel I just finished, BEAUTIFUL ASSASSIN, I first had to do tons of research about the pre-Civil War period and World War II, respectively. By knowing more about the world I was to write about, I suddenly knew more about my characters’ worlds. I began, slowly and sometimes tediously, to enter into the mind of my characters’, one of the most important things a writer can do. Research, for me, is not just the frosting on the cake, the little touches regarding the setting’s truth (for example, the fact that Cain uses a Walker Colt pistol, or that Tat’yana’s sniper rifle is a Moison-Nagant 7.62 mm bolt action), it is fundamentally about the characters’ world, and how their external world reflects their internal world.
I will be giving a workshop on the writer’s use of research this summer, but for now, I’d like to hear from each of you how you use research to inform your own writing. This might help each of use to try new things in our work.