Research for Creative Writers

Back in my poet days, it was easy. I could look up facts about whales, anatomy, the violin, crown vetch, whatever obscure item I needed to make my image work. I didn’t have to be an authority on the topic.

If I were a historian, I would know how to breeze in and out of archives to get the information I needed. If I were a journalist, I would know how to call people and get them to talk (in a good way, not in a fake Russian accent mobster kind of way).

If I were an academic, I would have an institution behind me. Instead I have my wavering sense of self. “Hi. I’m a writer? Um. Could I visit your archives? Here’s ten things I’ve published and a sonnet just to prove to you that I’m not an international map thief. And that I’m smart and creative, and never mind.” If I wanted to talk to people for a living I would still be working in bookstores.

If the archives I wanted to visit weren’t in such an expensive place it would all be easier. If my local historical associations awarded gifts to creative writers, it would all be easier. If I weren’t such a fucking introvert, it would all be easier.

But on the other hand, I am not writing the definitive biography of my historical person. I am writing the story of some lives woven together. And my own introverted, curious, poetry-lovin’ self is the narrator. Surely I can pull that off.

How do you do research for what you write? Or create?

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4 responses to “Research for Creative Writers

  1. Back when I had a natural history blog about my cabin and woods, I would dare to identify a given insect by its scientific binomial, and I would have people write in to tell me I was wrong. I decided then not to try to be so specific and just make it a personal reflections kind of blog. Then it got hacked and is now gone. Plus, I decided if I just wrote fiction, I would be the ultimate authority on my subject and couldn’t get anything “wrong.” (Even grammar and punctuation were under my command.) But I do strive for verisimilitude, so I do as much research (personal experience, Wikipedia, talking to people in the know) to get it generally right while still not getting too specific. Worked well for my stories about fathers and sons.

    Now I’m formulating a story that will take my character into an ugly world I have not experienced, and I find I am needing to do a lot more research (though not primary research). It’s still no more than getting it all generally right, but since I know nothing about this field, I need to do a lot of research.

    • Fascinating. One of my more straight-laced students read a book about meth for a story she was writing (we laughed about it). Even the author of the book had never tried meth because it was supposed to be so addicting. I found that interesting.

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