Research notes

(Thank you to Necessary Fiction for hosting me for their “Research Notes” feature. I thought my entire piece would be variations on “I don’t do research,” but it didn’t quite end up that way.)

Research. This is one of those topics where I don’t entirely trust myself. There are novelists out there who do copious amounts of research, for years. I am not one of them. However, whenever I don’t want to do something, I usually assume that means that I should. I suppose this is because I was raised a southern Presbyterian.

I once heard Stewart O’Nan (this was at Sewanee, years and years ago) say that for him, research was like pushing the boulder up the hill: once it was at the top, you could just let go, and ride that momentum. We should probably listen to him, because he’s published fifteen novels. For me, though, research feels more like reading the manual when I get a new computer or phone: I don’t want to stop and learn the shortcuts and the handy-dandy features; I’d rather learn just enough to turn the thing on and keep going. In the end, this approach probably wastes more time than it saves, but for a while I get to keep the illusion of my own sort of momentum.

 Here is my greatest fear about research: that we confuse verisimilitude with truth.


When I was young, in elementary school — the apex, in a way, of my reading life; the time when I lived in books almost constantly — I read a lot of biographies and historical fiction, things that must have required research. Now I don’t read to learn about other cultures or times, or not fiction, anyway. I’m always afraid that the imperative to immerse us in 1841 San Francisco or thirteenth-century France will overcome the story and I will feel dragooned into learning. It’s possible, though, that this attitude, too, involves a certain degree of self-protection. Maybe, as a writer, I secretly want to do that kind of thing, but worry I couldn’t pull it off.

All this defensiveness, I’m sure, means there is a book set in the Qing dynasty or Viking-era Newfoundland somewhere in my authorial future.

Read the rest here.