When preparing to write a novel, the role of research can’t be overstated. There are moments of panic in every writer’s life when they realize they don’t know what vermouth tastes like on its own (kind of medicinal and dry, with a hint of a tonic flavor as the result of herbs added to what is basically cheap wine), how many years it takes one to go from law school to full fledged partner (seven, if you don’t ever go home or have any connection to what one might call “a life”) or how difficult it might be to have sex in a moving vehicle while driving (still in the planning stages). Research fills the cracks between a character being anyone and being someone, making them particular, making them resonant with an audience. Even if your reader doesn’t know that the stick shift could prove a tremendous hindrance (or aid) to the mobile love scene, they must trust that you, the writer know that it would cause problems (or move things along at a nice clip). If the writing rings authentic and true then, ironically, the reader won’t even notice the writer is there; if it is inauthentic then it is as if the writer has just arrived, uninvited, and soiled the dinner napkins.

Some research is bookish in nature. Why have I read physics text books, math text books, volumes on black holes, time travel, neurological disease, memory, brain malfunctions, Disney World, phrenology, mold and fungus, anthropology, and literary theory? For the women? Of course, but also because there’s a certain amount of information that I can only get from someone else’s pages. My need to know what soldiers in World War I wore took me to a general history of the period, then to memoirs by soldiers who survived, to museums with photography of the era. In the end there is never enough of this kind of research. A writer must find the line between thorough and obsessive, between useful and distracting. Fanatically reading book after book in the name of research helps many writers avoid the admission that they are not actually writing.

Then there’s the active gathering, the research that is the choosing to go and do. William T. Vollman has made this an art in itself. Sickeningly so. He follows a work ethic and vision of what it means to be a writer that makes others (me) look like Sickly English School Children. This kind of research saddens and scares me. The more academic of us trust the books, the more orbally-endowed trust their eyes, ears, and the sounds of their own screams. Might I write a story in which a character jumps from an airplane? I guess. Will I know first hand what it’s like? Let’s just move on.

At last we arrive at the research at which I excel, the research we don’t even know we are doing:  unsought expertise. This research is the most valuable, I find (screw you, Vollman). In our own lives lurks expertise we have not through active choice (“I will go live in a commune for a year so my aging hippie character is really authentic.”) but through life lived (“My aging hippie character is really authentic. Thanks Phish concerts from 1992-1997!”). Paying attention to the little things you do every day, the choices you make without making them, your instincts and habits, the stitching that holds your day together, looking at the moments of yourself can provide more information than you might otherwise give yourself credit for.

In my novel, Numb, the main character can’t feel pain. Bookish research led to a certain amount of information: a disease or condition that fit the symptom, instances of freakish events or religious zeal that led people to pursue such body control/manipulation/mutilation. Articles and text books helped make his nature clear in my mind, but so too did dental work, minor surgeries, and a just plain klutzy nature (“When did I get that bruise?”). When I needed to know what the tug of the needle applying stitches felt like I only needed to recall the stitches given after an assault (crazy woman with an umbrella). That assault also provided some callous police officers and a compassionate non-English speaking immigrant, a man who yelled for help in another language and for which I will always be grateful. It gave me the emergency room odor and fluorescent lighting. It gave me the blinding shine and unearthly quiet of a hospital corridor.

Another character, Mal, is a fire-eater, a showman with a pyromaniac’s passion for life. How to find his view from inside a fireball? I need only recall my inappropriate handling of a unlit pilot light when making some baked oatmeal (I know, yummy) and the ensuing fireball that engulfed my head. I discovered two things. First, the inside of a fireball is amazingly beautiful, a swirl of orange and blue and a sound like being inside a runner’s chest. Second, action films are bullshit. I don’t care how much of a lead Bruce Willis or Governor Schwarzenegger get, they ain’t outrunning any fireball. It takes some enjoyment away from action films when you’ve lost half an eyebrow and more than an entire sideburn.

There is a certain responsibility writers have to provide a full picture, to provide enough for the reader to inhabit the world we present. I don’t ask for detail, just truth: truth in the background of the words on the page. Some writers ignore this at their own peril.  But if we have that responsibility they also can enjoy the tiny treasures of their own lives, and to devalue that, to ignore your own expertise in being you is to devalue not only yourself but what you have to offer, and if you do that, why bother sharing it.  The expertise we each have, from what we do to what we’ve done, is best allowed into our writing. It is what makes the imagined real, what makes the otherwise useless useful. How else can our fiction be the truthful lie?

And for those who are wondering, yes, the baked oatmeal was delicious, and no, the assault was not my fault.

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SEAN FERRELL is the author of Man in the Empty Suit (Soho Press, 2013) and Numb (HarperPerennial, August 2010). His short fiction has appeared in The Cafe Irreal and won the Fulton Prize from The Adirondack review. He lives and works, in no particular order, in New York City. You can find him online at www.seanferrell.com

25 responses to “Research, and How to Fake It”

  1. Patty Blount says:

    Come on, Sean, dish. You MUST have done something to provoke the woman with the umbrella!

    What you’ve written here reminds me of an old X-Files episode. I’m a HUGE fan; have most of the series on DVD. In an episode amusingly called “From Jose Chung’s Outer Space,” author Jose Chung discusses a “new literary genre” with my favorite agents, what he calls non-fiction science fiction – spinning a story around enough real incidents and facts that the distinction between each isn’t just blurred; it’s GONE.

    I love research. I could get lost in research and have to stop myself to return to the manuscript. There’s something fun in learning new stuff. What I learn shapes plots, characters, reactions to certain stimuli. Even if 75% of it never ends up in the story, it’s never wasted.

    I spent a few semesters in nursing school prior before leaving to get married. That knowledge served me well while I researched medical outbreak protocols and poisons during my last project. (You know, I can still spell the gizmo used to take blood pressures!?) I’d never worked in a trauma setting and needed to know how that would play out. I wasn’t permitted to observe at my local hospital (they almost admitted me when I asked) but I did know some people in the field I can interview.

    My current project required a great deal of legal research into laws not yet written. It’s been interesting learning how each state prosecutes ‘cyberbullying’ and ‘sexting’. In fact, I altered the plot to account for the lack of consistency.

    I love this post.

  2. J.E. Fishman says:

    Spot on, Sean. One of my favorite quotes on this subject is from Henry James: “In order to write about dying, one only needs to have had a bad cold.”

  3. dwoz says:

    Ditto on the “love this post.”

    Research is the BEST procrastination I’ve yet discovered.

    I think every author should write a character into his manuscript that spends his time drinking to oblivion in a Caribbean bar, tiring of the attentions of the island women because their salve doesn’t soothe the burning pain in his heart.

  4. Jeffrey Pillow says:

    Enjoyed this Sean. I love the research aspect of writing. (I’m working on my first novel) Just yesterday, I learned that canola oil stands for “CANadian Oil Low Acid,” a name change in 1978 to deter negative connotations associated with its original source, rapeseed. Thanks Wikipedia. And yes, the personal experiences that add to research can’t be stated enough. It’s amazing what all we pick on a daily basis that we don’t think twice about. For example, let’s say I have a character who smokes menthols. Well, he’s out of smokes. Store is closed. He’s at a buddy’s house. His buddy only smokes lights. He bums a cigarette from his buddy, walks upstairs to the bathroom, and rubs Crest mint toothpaste on the filter to make it taste minty. How do I know this? Because I used to smoke menthols when I was in high-school and I did that trick a hundred times.

  5. I’ve written a novel. Kind of. It’s got enough words and everything, but the words aren’t good enough to be considered ‘finished.’

    Anyway, the research on it was minimal. Those last two sentences are probably related.

    It also seems like I’ve cheated myself out of a holiday in the Caribbean.

    I’m always doing that.

    Great post. Loved the whole fireball bit. Because as everyone knows, fire is awesome.

    • dwoz says:

      I know the fireball. I did that once. Lighting a gas water heater that had been filling the immediate proximity with gas for about a half a minute.

      there was this amazing sound. Like the word “Pock” spoken in falsetto with the P really exaggerated, along with the squeaky-fingernails-on-the-chalkboard type of sound that glass being ground against concrete makes.

      …and white ash where eyebrows used to be.

  6. Researching has been on my mind lately: to what degree and how to communicate without stifling fiction, or the readers imagination? You mentioned that the readers own experience is truth, and truth always resonates with readers. So well said. And I think this answers my own questions. Fantastic article. Thanks, Sean.

  7. meredith says:

    So that’s where your sideburns went…Are you sure it only got the eyebrow and the sideburn?

  8. Simon Smithson says:

    “For the women? Of course, but also because there’s a certain amount of information that I can only get from someone else’s pages. ”

    This two-sentence construction alone has convinced me to buy your book.

  9. Marni Grossman says:

    This was a great piece and I feel guilty commenting on just one line but…attacked by a woman with an umbrella? You’ve got to give us the full story-

  10. Jessie Mac says:

    Ah, reading this is great research. Now I know why I die nearly every month. I didn’t know dying and being resurrected could be so easy. Many surprises for the Grim Reaper.

    Thanks for the post, Sean. People, I will answer the question: I am the woman with the umbrella. But you’ll have to wait until my novel is out to know why. It was for research. That’s all I can say. If you push me, you will see the umbrella.

    • Patty Blount says:

      OK, imagining you beaning Sean over the head with an umbrella actually did induce real out loud laughter and now my colleagues are all peeking over their cubicles to find out what I did.

      • Jessie Mac says:

        Patty – you have full permission to use said ‘famous’ umbrella on Sean (or any man or woman or thing) as you like.

        I too am an X-Files lover. Shush, don’t tell anyone. It is contagious. And don’t tell anyone that I barely touched Sean’s head. He just screamed. I think he thought it was a fireball. Research may not kill you – no – but it can make you a little barmy (British slang for crazy).

  11. Gloria says:

    “Fanatically reading book after book in the name of research helps many writers avoid the admission that they are not actually writing.”

    Oh my goodness. Reading this line unstuck me from a place I’ve been lingering in for what turns out to be a really long time. Thank you so much.

    Great essay.

  12. Patty Blount says:

    For what it’s worth, here’s how I balance the research Black Hole against actually writing.

    First draft: write, write, write, question with no answer arises, stop, consider. Does the answer to the question change the way the scene continues? In many cases, no. It does not. So, I leave myself that I can easily find later with my Find/Replace feature. In some cases, entire scenes are blank, until I get those answers. Write, write, write…

    I devote a few days to doing the preliminary research. Sometimes, the preliminaries lead me to new questions and that’s when I get sucked into the Black Hole. But the first draft is already in good shape.

    Here’s an example: for a previous project that required a thorough knowledge of poisons and how they’d present to an ER doctor, I had to skip the initial patient-arrives scene until I knew what the symptoms would look like. But I could write the later scene, in which the ER doc has her “Ah ha!” moment, rushes to a patient’s chart, re-reads all the test results and fires off a “STAT!” directive to the nursing staff. The name of the counteracting drug was, of course, still a . But the rest of the scene was done.

    Current WIP requires legal research and I’ve never studied law and wondered how so many kids are being prosecuted for “sexting.” Turns out, they’re not. There is no such law. Different states are going after these kids for distributing child porn and the way that law is prosecuted and punished varies widely. This knowledge required significant rewrites of my MC’s backstory, which had been slowly revealed throughout the book. I liked one state’s method, so had the MC commit his crime there.

    It’s the fiction equivalent of playing Mad Libs. It works for me… your mileage may vary. What do you all do to avoid the time suck research often causes?

  13. Patty Blount says:

    Sorry gang! I had the word NOTE in the previous comment enclosed in angle brackets and the site absorbed them.

  14. Sara H says:

    Great post.

    I am familiar with the joys(?!) of reading London public transport maps and finding out little bits of trivia like “Who was on the cover of Q Magazine in December 1992?”

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