How Much Should I Research?

In the story I have been drafting these last weeks, I’ve hit up against real edges in my knowledge. I have dived on into research, poring over academic articles, newspapers, and of course Wikipedia. I have taken awful volumes down of notes. I have learned much, and I’ve asked questions.

I am generally not a research-heavy writer. I’ll web-search the odd detail or spend thirty minutes plumbing Google Maps. But choosing to write more often from personal experience or the pure imaginative, research has been a relatively small part of my writing process.

The question lingers in my mind: how much research should I do? What is the impact of research on the fiction that we write? So we shall explore today.

Research and Fiction

It can be useful to imagine a continuum of reliance on research verses imagination in fiction writing. At one extreme, we eschew all research, insisting on our creativity to guide our stories. At the other, we research minutely, poring over documents to, perhaps, dramatize as faithfully as possible verifiable historical events.

Having thought at length about verisimilitude in fiction, that need for believability to hold a reader, to enable suspension of disbelief, I understand and often feel the allure of the heavily-researched story. If fiction, at least in the form I seek to write, aims at exploring truth, thorough research seems essential. It is blasphemous, perhaps, to fill in details that could be located through research with imaginary simulacra.

Indeed, at its worst, a failure to research can lead to neglectful and misrepresentative perpetuation of stereotypes. Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, although in many ways a heartfelt and engaging story, was famously lacking in research and has been consequently criticized for its portrayal of a character on the autism spectrum.

Yet too firm a hand at research can rapidly stifle us. If we seek to verify every detail of the worlds we depict, we may become afraid to write anything that could be “incorrect.” It is a real agony to stare at a sentence: could this actually have happened like this? Is this believable? The paralysis that sets in when we insist our stories must bear the weight of factual accuracy–it is a great vehicle for our lingering self-doubt.

Puddle reflections

Some genres, some stories, some scenes within them will need more research than others do before they fly. To help determine the amount of research reasonable, let’s consider the following:

1. What’s the payoff of getting it right?

Consider your audience. To what extent are they seeking entertainment, real-world knowledge, or exploration? If the thrust of the story really is a tour through a real world past or present, then meticulous research might make sense. Readers will revel in their newfound understanding of this world you’re depicting because they trust you’ve got it right. A story can be deepened, lent complexity and nuance, can take its place in a real conversation about tangible elements of the world if a strong research base undergirds it.

For many stories, however, the benefit of copious research is more dubious. We might indeed spend hours aligning our stories with the facts, only to find that readers do not notice or care. The layouts of cities, precisely rendered words from a legal transcript, the weather on particular days in history–depending on the goal of our stories, we might decide that these elements will not give great benefit. The hours of research might be better spent on honing of the draft itself.

2. What is the cost if we get it wrong?

Some elements can be left to the imagination with impunity and not damage a story nigh at all. The interior furnishings of a particular historical room, the method with which a heron actually constructs its nest [do herons actually build nests? I assume so, although I haven’t researched. I hope it doesn’t damage this blog post if I’ve got it wrong]–imagination or research here might perform equally effectively.

In some cases, however, it matters deeply, and here I consider concepts of power and privilege. Cautioned by the Haddon example described above, particularly when I am writing about people with identities traditionally less privileged than my own, there is real danger of misrepresentation and paternalism. I hope my writing will lift people up, but if I fail to research, make assumptions about others’ experiences, then I form part of the structure holding others down. In such cases to rely on imagination, I feel this is irresponsible, reprehensible.

3. Is it a truth or more a trend?

My research the last several days has focused on the experiences of Vietnamese immigrants to Germany post-1950. I have scoured academic research on the Vietnamese diaspora, on the push-factors that led people to leave Vietnam, including before, during, and after the war, and I have trawled what I can of German newspapers that told these stories, interviews with former contract worker in the GDR, with resettled refugees in the West.

For a while, I agonized. The character for whom this research is relevant is a later descendent of these immigrants. I am researching his family history. I have to get it right. This is one of those cases, in my mind, when the danger of misrepresentation is real.

Yet this consideration of truth or trend–this is an important one here too. I am not researching a single event. In fact, with an estimated 200,000 people of Vietnamese nationality or descent living in Germany, the huge diversity of experiences, journeys, and perspectives means I am researching a trend, and this gives me more latitude to invent. Informed by everything I have read, I can imagine a set of circumstances that work for my story and are within the possible of what happened.

If we are writing about a very particular place or historical event, we may have less flexibility. The vowing of the Tennis Court Oath was the vowing of the Tennis Court Oath. The Cambodian Immigration Department office in Phnom Penh is a real place. Fudging these may be dicier than we desire.

4. Where might truth be aided or obscured by fact?

A final consideration is the relationship between what is factually accurate and humanly true. I explored this question in relation to Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden some months ago, asking whether one might exaggerate or change factual details in order to highlight the complexity, the emotional import, the undergirding truth of something. I think the answer is that yes, sometimes this can work, and sometimes it is the only thing that can work. The imagination is necessary to push us beyond what is factual, to a new possible, after all, and in these cases, too close a reliance on research might actually hinder our stories more than help them.

We can find an analogy here in painting: the hyperrealist, the abstract, the impressionist, the surreal, Dada. It is no rule that the most realistic carries the most truth. So too with our stories, and so in life.

There is another side, of course. Imagination on its own can turn so far inward, ruminating, a repetitive loop–sustained, openminded, real listening research expands us. How many naive assumptions do we make that get replicated in our art? Let research be an antidote for this. Let us learn and grow and share it in our writing.

We might consider, at each moment, where would research take this piece? Is this what I want to show? What am I showing, after all? What is my knowledge? It is dynamic, complicated, an ever-branching path of possible stories. As with all things.

Have I answered that question? How much should I research? Indeed, I have not. I have only posed more questions. And this too is what research does. I know so much more now about the experiences of Vietnamese immigrants to Germany, and I feel that I know less. I’ll have to be content with this.

How much research do you do? What considerations drive your research, and what techniques do you use to go about it? I would love to hear.

A short week is coming now ahead. The Easter holidays have been shortened at our school, the gained days pasted onto the end of summer. But it’s a three-day week regardless. We’re pushing on.

Best wishes to you all. Thanks for stopping by!
Jimmy

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