Researching a Novel, Blogagaard-Style

Every writer has a different approach to researching a novel, and my approach is pretty half-assed. Yes, ladies and germs, I am no James Michner.

First of all, the reason I write fiction is because I like making shit up. There, I said it. Someone had to say it, right? Because if I have to hear one more super-serious writer drone on and on about "researching their novel" and "really getting a feel for the time and place" I'm going to have blow up their cats in my microwave, and I really don't want to have to do that. I like cats. They shouldn't have to be microwaved because some English department desk jockey literati wannabee thinks throwing in an extra two hundred pages of details they read on-line or in some other book somehow adds to the gravitas of their novel. It doesn't. It just bores the shit out of me. I want to read fiction. If I wanted to read non-fiction, I'd fucking read that, alright?

Somewhere along the literary line, a particular section of the American fiction reader has become convinced that every novel they read, like they cell phones they own, must serve at least ten different functions at once: they need to learn everything about horse racing while reading a romance that also teaches them a nice moral lesson, they need to become more aware of autism and rape and gay bullying while being pulled into the history of salt mining and a love triangle that ends badly. But why? What's wrong with just reading a cool story that moves you in some way and allows you to reflect on maybe, um, just one or two ideas? That creates a certain kind of reflective space in your mind that wouldn't otherwise be there, even if you'd learned every detail of 19th century cotton plantations?

That's not to say I condone totally un-researched books, either (at least ones set in this reality). No, go ahead and get yourself to the library, scout around a little, find a nice scattering of details that will give your fiction piece some realistic punch (if that's what you're going for). Go ahead and drive/fly/swim to your fictitious locale and sniff around (see above link). Just don't confuse a bunch of facts with the whole story.


Anonymous said...


You made me spittake on this on!

Ultimately, I think it depends on the project, but I know what you mean--you're a writer, write!

It's like the actors who have to "live the role" before they can perform it. Sometimes I wanna say "Bullshit!" You're an actor--act!

Realism is great, but not always the point either.


David Oppegaard said...

Yes! A spit take!

I remember a Dustin Hoffman story about method acting and found this on the net:

He has always said that the most famous story concerning his collaboration with Olivier on Marathon Man has been taken out of context. It was reported that, to prepare himself for a scene in which his character was supposed to have been kept awake for days on end, Hoffman himself refused to go to sleep all night. "Have you ever tried acting, dear boy?" his Lordship was alleged to have said. Hoffman now says that he was, in fact, out partying at Studio 54 the night before and that Olivier's comment was a mild rebuke for his debauchery.

Anonymous said...

Oh Dave - I wish you hadn't talked about microwaving cats, it was rather disturbing. I wish you had talked about microwaving writers, and/or their brains.

However, I do not agree with your argument (which is rare, because I usually leave messages of love) because while I like my characters all fiction, and their exact experiences all fiction - I do like them to live in a world which is recognisable to me. Now this could be because their war ridden country might be very similar to an actual war ridden country; or it might be because the kind of people the hero of the books meets, might be very similar to the kinds of people I meet; or the thoughts they think are very similar to the thoughts I think.

In fact, I think this is the very reason, that even fiction is not the exact truth, it is the truth in essence. So you see in some cases research is important - because reading fiction might take me to places reading history books won't.

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