Here’s a scenario that might sound familiar, at least in concept: You’re writing a novel and your character decides to enter a monastery. You want this to seem real. You want to describe what the monastery looks like, what prayers are said. The layout of the grounds. The research for this is basic: Look up prayers said by monks of a certain order. Scan the blueprint of a certain monastery. Done.
But are you? What does it take to know how a hermit-monk might think and feel?
There’s a whole other kinds of research that has to do not with practical verisimilitude—“Look, I know the street names in Nouakchott!”—but with learning how to achieve emotional verisimilitude. Getting the consciousness of a place right in a certain time. Getting into a character’s head, someone who’s pretty different from you.
There’s a good writer who got into some trouble a few years ago—rightly so—because, in speaking at a conference, they put on a sombrero and proclaimed that writers should write about whatever and whoever they want, however they want. And while that’s troubling—I say this as the son of a Mexican—it is true that we ought to be open as writers to exploring emotional and psychological territory beyond our own. But in swimming out into those treacherous waters, there has to be an expansion of what you feel you ought to know before you write places, people, and times you’re unfamiliar with. Here, then, are a few tips for how to approach that quandary.
4 Tips on Research for Writing Authentic Novels and Stories
1. Read fiction in which people, places, and times like the ones you’re creating appear. You want to write a story in the Virgin Islands, or other locales in the Caribbean? Read Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowning. Read V.S. Naipaul. Read the poetry of Derek Walcott. Read these to learn what it means to be of these places. To feel their concerns as your own. To intuit something universal to which you can relate, something rooted in the experience of that time and place. You’ll find that new and more interesting potential tensions emerge as possibilities for what your characters might need to confront.
2. Once you’ve read that kind of fiction, do some interpretive work. You’ll need to decide where the story that you originally wanted to tell fits within the existing tradition of writers associated with that world. And if, after reading, you still feel like your character is integral to your premise, then dive in. But even then, do so with a sense of indebtedness not just to getting the street names right, but also to the literary traditions preceding you in writing about that place, that time, and those people. Your reward for doing so will not only be accuracy, but also a wider array of possibilities for what your characters’ concerns might be.
3. Read memoirs written by people who resemble the characters you want to create. Want to write a monk? Read Thomas Merton’s The Seven-Storey Mountain, an autobiography in which you see a monk thinking and feeling. Read more contemporary ones, if your character lives in the now. It’s not that your character has to precisely follow the thought patterns of real people—after all, your character is their own person—but that this reading will give you the option of deciding how and when to have your characters veer off some existing train of thought in ways that are intentional.
4. Read and watch things your character might have read and seen. Your character’s a film student. Well, guess what? She’s probably the type to drop film references in her daily conversation, to filter her own emotions through what she imagines some character in a movie might feel about similar circumstances. So, then, you need to know the movies that she’s watched and admires. To think like someone else thinks, you have read what they’ve read. Watch what they’ve watched.
Research Like a Writer
To think this way as you research is to think like a writer. The kind of deep knowledge you get from taking these steps is crucial.
Still, there are good reasons to be slow in committing to undertaking this kind of work. First off, it’s a monumental task, to commit to learning this level of truth about a certain brand of human experience, so you probably want to dip a toe in those deep waters of research before going all the way. Also, it’s an inefficient process. Doing it this way, you’ll end up reading much that isn’t exactly relevant to your story, and you might get sidetracked in ways that lengthen the process. But that’s okay. The process works despite its inefficiency. There’s no other way.
And if you do this well and in good faith—if you balance the need to keep true to your own vision for your story with the need to be open to how this research might shift your idea of what you’re writing about—stunning results can emerge. Look at how Canadian author Esi Edugyan has researched and written so beautifully and tellingly about plantation life in Barbados in the 19th century in her novel, Washington Black. Look at how Colson Whitehead, a lifelong New Yorker, writes so remarkably about a real-life Florida boarding school in his novel, The Nickel Boys. Look at how Elise Blackwell, a Louisianian, writes compellingly about a Russian food scientist during the famine in Stalingrad during World War II in Hunger.
Whitehead’s work doesn’t succeed because he put on the Florida equivalent of a sombrero and started typing away. Ditto for those other examples. These works succeed because their writers put in the time to do more than just get logistical details of their foreign scenarios and characters right. The goal for any writer might be—and this is no hard and fast rule—to first invent a few solid reference points about a character’s life, key moments in their trajectory. Or maybe invent a few key images from their life around which to build out a larger story. Once you have those—and have verified their believability and written out in exacting prose what this might look like—then you can begin to fill in the emotional details of how such a character might have responded to such key moments by reading and researching more deeply, in the ways described above.
And once you’ve done that hard work, only then is it worthwhile to veer into the deep waters of playing at being the God of their minds. Once you’ve done the research—which can be wondrous in itself—you’ll find you have more room for exciting play in how you let your imagination run free with possibilities. And this—this is when writing can get really fun.