Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Creative Scrutiny of Research Part One: You ask, "Why?"

As the author of six books and several short stories (eight books if pre-published counts), I have indulged in a lot of research. I use the word indulge on purpose, because most of the time, it’s fun.

Wikipedia states that research (look again? look differently? – see how I get carried away?) is defined as "creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of humans, culture and society, and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications.”

I love that whoever wrote this Wiki page described research as creative. For an author, the inventive part comes when we synthesize the knowledge into something completely unique, a new character, a fantastical society, or an ingenious philosophy.

Why would a fiction author do research, you ask? For me personally, there are a couple of reasons (at least) and I believe most of my author colleagues would agree with them. 

First, a novel must have credibility.

Yes, even if you are writing about a completely fictional town. For my Emily Taylor Mystery series, my imaginary village of Burchill, situated in the middle of Ontario, couldn’t  sport palm trees. The setting, even in a fantasy novel, needs to have some familiarity for the reader or we’ll get completely lost. In a mystery novel, the setting must be pretty real. Burchill is based on Merrickville, Ontario, so I visited, used maps, looked up the geography and topography.

In a mystery, the plot is extremely important. The Emily Taylor Mysteries taught me, often the hard and embarrassing way, that a plot idea often leads to a myriad of investigations. My novels aren’t police procedurals, but they do have policing in them. I learned from some of my endorsers (e.g. author Vicki Delany) that I had to be more accurate.

In The Bridgeman, my main character was the operator of the lift bridge. I knew nothing about that – enter, research! Not to mention puppy mills (heartbreaking knowledge to have), policing of small towns, and First Nation territories. 

For Victim, I ended up having to learn about forests, caves, rescue operations, vegetation and First Nation philosophy.

With Legacy, I expanded into child protection services, hypnosis, oxygen deprivation, post-partum depression, fires, provincial courts and churches.

For Seventh Fire, wrongful convictions took up most of my fact-finding time. 

Sweet Karoline involved history, pow-wows, policing in the US and Canada, and even more thoroughly, psychosis.

See how one little plot points feeds the research machine? And the author simply must do it – otherwise, your readers will pounce on you and refuse to buy the next one.

The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write: an [author] will turn over half a library to write one book,” said Samuel Johnson, an English author in the 1700’s.

Do fiction authors have to be completely accurate? Well, no. We are writing a story, after all, one that’s not true. However, we must find the balance between reality and imagination to be believable.

Mark Twain famously said, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” This quote has often been translated into “the facts” rather than the truth, but I suppose it means pretty much the same thing. I somewhat adhere to this philosophy. I gather the information, then sometimes bend or twist it to fit my purposes.

As Stephen King said, “You may be entranced with what you’re learning about the flesh-eating bacteria, the sewer system of New York, or the I.Q. potential of collie pups, but your readers are probably going to care a lot more about your characters and your story.

That’s often what I’m betting on when I brush a bit too quickly across the truth or leave out some minutiae.

The second reason for doing research is a big more esoteric. As Robert McKee, the creative writing instructor known for “Story Seminar” has said: “Do research. Feed your talent. Research…wins the war on cliché.”


Historical research for Sweet Karoline led me to residential schools where Canadian First Nations children were confined. Although these facts didn’t fit that book’s plot, I used the knowledge for The Three R’s, my story in the anthology Thirteen

 Currently, I continue to read everything I can about the schools. I live in Brantford, Ontario, where the Mohawk Institute sits – the model for all the other residences in our country. Ironically, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has just begun to make many of my fellow Canadians aware of this shameful past. Some day, I believe a novel on this topic is destined to burst forth from my fingertips.

Celia Green, a British non-fiction author, said, “The way to do research is to attack the facts at the greatest point of astonishment.”

I like that. Including some of the most poignant, interesting or vital facts can make the story more vibrant, realistic and distinctive.

 Research is one thing: passion,” said poet Khalid Masood. Very poetic and, I think, true.

Next Time: A Creative Scrutiny of Research Part Two Subsection A: The Author Asks How to Research?

To find all my books and short stories, visit my website: www.catherineastolfo.com

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