Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Creative License: When NOT To Research

Confession: I'm an ex-academic. I languished in a Ph.D. program for years, endlessly researching an uninspired dissertation that I ended up never finishing. My long experiment with graduate school is a story for another post, I guess ("Why Pursuing a Ph.D. Should Be a Calling, Not a Fallback Option During an Economic Recession." Or, "Why You Should Cut Loose Your Safety Net -- Because It's Not So Safe!")

In those years I spent training to be a literary critic and a scholar, I developed a facility for research. That's good, right? Yes. I knew how to find information, and fast.

But I also developed a certain defensiveness.

In grad school, we were always on the defense, fortifying ourselves against professors who probed for intellectual potholes, or opportunistic young colleagues eager to knock down our arguments in a seminar and score a few points for themselves.

Or maybe it wasn't like that at all. Maybe I simply had a luxury of time back then to overthink, and to worry, and this is what sent me scurrying to the library day after day after day.

That need for research eventually carried into my fiction writing. First I wrote historical novels (not published), which might have still been that unwritten dissertation, in new clothes.

Then I wrote a mystery (Tokyo Heist) which centered on worlds that interested me greatly, but that I knew little about, initially: art conservation, the Japanese yakuza, Vincent van Gogh, Japanese woodblock prints, manga . . . if I didn't know about it, I was determined to find out about it and put it in my book!

With all the research I had to do, it's no wonder that book took eight years to write.

That pace is unsustainable, of course, for an aspiring career novelist. So when I had to write my next mystery -- with a book contract and a deadline -- I knew I didn't have the luxury of researching every detail.

For my forthcoming Latitude Zero, I chose a topic a little closer to home for me -- bicycling, a sport that I do -- and a country, Ecuador, where I once lived and worked. However, as I rounded out my main character's world, I realized I still had to do some research. (How do bike mechanics work? How are professional racing teams organized? How has Ecuador changed since I lived there over a decade ago?) But this time, I saved most of my research for after the first draft. I tried to get the story straight before I worried too much about facts. This saved me hours -- maybe weeks or months -- of research that was not needed, research I might have been tempted to shoehorn awkwardly into my plot.

I also found creative freedom in writing this book by letting go of the need to research every last detail myself. I had experts in various fields read the manuscript and vet facts or descriptions that I was worried about.

And a few things, I let go of completely.

I have a scene, for example, where a character is trapped in a shipping container with a whole bunch of bikes. In the past, worried about getting this key scene right, I would have arranged to see a shipping container packed with bikes up close. Not impossible. There's a bike shop here in Boston that packs up containers with bikes to send overseas, and they're always looking for volunteers. I volunteered at an art museum as part of my research for Tokyo Heist, so I thought I would do similar hands-on research with this book.

It wasn't easy. I tried on four separate occasions to get to a bike container load so I could see what it looked like firsthand. Family obligations got in the way every time. I was not a parent when I drafted my first book. Now I am. I don't have the luxury of time to immerse myself in every aspect my main character's worlds, as I had done before.

Beta readers looked at the scene -- and said it was gripping. I finally saw the light. I didn't need to research the life out of that scene. It was enough for me to watch a video of a shipping container bike load, to study some pictures of how the containers were locked, and then go write the scene. Readers were not likely to complain that my portrayal was not realistic. After all, how many people have been locked in a shipping container with 400 bikes? I'm guessing not many. If anyone came forward to accuse me of inaccuracy ("being trapped in a shipping container isn't like that at all!"), they'd be few and far between. So I decided to give myself some creative license and make up the experience myself. And it was fun!

In that spirit, towns in my book -- once real -- were demolished, and rebuilt as fictional entities. This freed me from the need to go out and check road signs and intersections and travel times from point A to point B. And after fruitlessly looking for a charity bike ride that my main characters might embark on, I made one up from scratch, including a route and all the logistics.

I still think research is important. Incorrect facts can pull readers right out of a book. And I still have a fat binder of research that I did for this new book -- and I still ended up venturing into unknown worlds, because I love to explore and to learn. But I've also learned to be more focused, more selective, in my information-gathering. We can let research take over, or become an excuse for not writing. As novelists, we have the license to make up a whole bunch of stuff. We should embrace our creative freedom -- and run from the temptation to over-research!

What about you? Do you tend to do too much research? Too little? How do you find a balance? When in the process do you do your research?

PS . . . have you entered SLEUTHAPALOOZA, our biggest giveaway yet? Help us celebrate our two-year anniversary and enter to win, or help spread the word! 


Diana Renn grew up in Seattle and now lives outside of Boston with her husband and young son. Her first novel, TOKYO HEIST (Viking/Penguin) came out in 2012. Her next YA mystery, LATITUDE ZERO, will be published by Viking in July 2014. She is also the Fiction Editor at YARN (Young Adult Review Network).

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