ASK AUNTIE MJ: DOING THE RESEARCH
My dear katwaterflame,
Auntie MJ has an MFA, a fact she sometimes brings up, but only SOMETIMES, and only in the right circumstances. This is largely because no one cares. But it is relevant here, because Auntie MJ has an MFA in nonfiction writing and learning HOW to do research was a major component of that degree. Nonfiction books, of course, are almost entirely research based (memoirs being about the only exception, and even then, you’d be surprised). They gave a very loose rule in teaching us about how to do research for our books, which was taken (I believe) from Truman Capote: you do about four times the research you actually need. Or, to flip it around, you’re probably going to use about 25% of your research.
Now, that number is OBVIOUSLY not going to hold true in every case, and it can’t be measured anyway. It’s just to give an idea of the relationship between how much you find out and how much of that stuff you actually use. And it’s more to give you an indication of how much work you need to do. In nonfiction, it’s usually a LOT. It’s a massive part of the job. It was supposed to indicate just how well we had to know our subject, and how selective we had to be when we were presenting it.
But I have written eleven works of fiction now, and I have some experience in transposing this lesson.
Some works of fiction require research. Some do not. Which ones need it? Well, ones with historical content. Or realistic content that requires a level of actual knowledge in order to pull off the story. FOR EXAMPLE, if you are writing a EXCITING SUBMARINE DRAMA, you kind of need to know how submarines work. If you are writing a POLITICAL THRILLER, you need to know quite a bit about politics. If you are writing a MURDER MYSTERY and have to kill someone, you probably need to know the details about how they die and how that would actually be investigated. If you are setting your book in a certain city, you need to learn about that city. If you are writing a book that features a character with an illness, you’ll need to know about that illness.
And that’s all sort of assuming a present-day reality. When you get into historical fiction, then the amount of research multiplies. Then you have to research ALL OF IT.
I would never be able to say how much research your book would need. Only you can figure that out. It’s usually pretty easy to identify the spots that require the research. If you are writing a scene that involves getting into a tank and you have no idea what it is like inside of a tank, that’s something you need to research. If you are writing a murder mystery set in 1940 and have no idea what was going on in 1940, then you probably need to pause, spend several months or a year or more doing nothing but researching 1940. Or you should set your book in a different time, because there is little point in setting it in a time you know NOTHING about.
As to the finding of research items, well, that is a BIG SUBJECT. Hopefully you have learned/will learn how to research in school. When researching, there are two KINDS of sources: primary and secondary. A PRIMARY source is a thing from the time or person or event. For example, an actual letter written by someone involved. An actual page of the investigation report. An interview with someone involved done by you. Photographs of the thing or person. A secondary source is a book or documentary, etc. on the subject, something that has taken a bunch of primary sources and interpreted them. (Here’s a handy article explaining these two things.)
You find your materials in quite a lot of places. Libraries, for one. Sometimes you actually visit the place, or go to an archive, or speak to people involved, or observe something in action. But the basics of research usually involve reading until you know your subject well.
That being said, you can OVERDO it. If you just need to know what the inside of a tank looks like, you don’t have to go INSANE and learn EVERYTHING about tanks. You have to learn where to draw the line, and this comes with experience. I wish I had an easier answer.
The best thing I can advocate is LEARNING about how research is done. It’s a learned skill, and one you can use in ALL ASPECTS of life. Many colleges and universities offer a course in how to use their resources. TAKE THIS. Take anything that is offered that is like this. In terms of what you can do RIGHT NOW, there are some good internet sites on how to research. Here’s one guide from Scholastic. Here’s another from Cornell University. There are loads more out there.
Also, libraries have TRAINED RESEARCH LIBRARIANS who know the science of research. Go in with your questions (as specific as possible) and ask for help.