The Truth Is a Trail of Breadcrumbs: Research in Fiction

Ernest Hemingway famously said, “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened.” For readers to embrace the inherent truth in fiction, the work must feel authentic. It’s why writers are always in search of infinitesimal crumbs of truth to weave into their fictional prose. It’s why research and nonfiction reading is a vital part of every fiction writer’s job.

The science fiction writer must know enough about actual science to make whatever mind-boggling
concept she has imagined seem plausible. Fantasy writers must draw on real-life
elements that will help readers suspend their disbelief of the fantastical.
Even writers of contemporary fiction must mind true-to-life details, because a
careless error can sometimes derail a reader’s satisfaction with the entire story.

Historical fiction writers bear perhaps the heaviest
research burden. Readers of such novels are sticklers for accuracy. Make one tiny
reference to a brassier in a story
set in the 1800s, and you will feel the full force of the anachronism hammer
rain upon you (I speak from experience).

All this means that serious writers read a lot, so much more
than we can ever use in our writing. We sometimes will read an entire
nonfiction book in search of one small tidbit of information to bring more truth
to our work.

Jay Boyer’s play Poaching Deer in Northern Arizona is a case-in-point. Boyer is an accomplished film scholar, poet, and playwright. His work has been produced and read in venues across the United States and around the world, including New York, Los Angeles, and London. One thing Boyer has not done is hunt deer.

So
he set out to learn as much as he could about deer hunting to add authenticity
to his story. He studied how to hand-load gunpowder into shotgun shell casings.
He learned the proper way to field dress a deer so that the meat does not
spoil. He wrote copious notes on the subject. In the end, though, the vast
majority of Boyer’s research sat on the shelf.

“I did a great deal of research, and I used just a brush
stroke or two in the play,” Boyer says. “I wound up using a little bit about
shell casings, and I wound up using a little bit about how you prepare a deer.
But I was only comfortable doing that once I had learned probably enough about
it to write a long and extensive article on each issue.”

That process of researching, drafting, and throwing away is more the rule than the exception when it comes to effective writing, regardless of the length or genre of the piece. For my recent historical novel set in 1930s Kansas, I read no fewer than 25 nonfiction books and countless articles about the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, farming, geology, auto mechanics, ecology, land surveying, food canning, quilting, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the New Deal, and so much more. I compiled many binders full of notes. And then I abandoned a lot of it.

People who read fiction are in it for the story, not a
history lesson. They want to be immersed in the time and place. They want become
invested in the fates of the characters.

“Historical fiction makes us feel,” said Susan Vreeland, internationally best-selling historical novelist. “It presents to us a truth more human than what history books present.”

So, while fiction writers strive for accuracy, all that research is not solely about getting all the facts straight. It also is about getting to know our characters and understanding their stories. And for that reason, most writers love doing it.

“Approaching research from a place of curiosity and wonder shapes the author’s relationship with that information,” Dana Chamblee Carpenter wrote in a recent column for Writer’s Digest. She is the author The Bohemian Trilogy, a series of historical paranormal novels. “What we learn comes to us as a living thing, like magic, and we handle it with care, folding it into the story like one might tenderly fold egg whites into a batter. This way, the rich details lift the story up rather than weigh it down.”

Complicating the writer’s job even further is the reality that every person’s “truth” is different. Our unique life experiences shape our perceptions of the world around us. Early in my writing career, my journalism training rendered my opinions regarding fact and fiction pretty much in black and white. As I got a bit more life experience under my belt (venturing into public relations, communications, marketing, and, finally, fiction writing), I began to understand just how fuzzy the line between fact and fiction truly is in all writing. Sadly, in our current era of “fake news,” some works of fiction contain more truth than similar works of nonfiction or journalism.

Still, exposing that intrinsic truth of which Hemingway spoke should always be the writer’s goal, even when she knows that absolutes are impossible. Natalia Sylvester ruminated on this idea as she was fine-tuning her debut novel, Chasing the Sun, which released in 2014.

“The best we might ever hope for is to write what is ‘truest’ or ‘true at the moment,’ because this, too, can always change,” she said. “How an author chooses to tell a story—by sticking to what we know, by venturing into what one can imagine—is as much about the writer as it is about the story.”

Image: Flickr/Horia Varlan