Wednesday, March 17, 2010

When we look at our research

I posted Monday about a thought that came to me during a recent visit by novelist Elise Blackwell to UCA. (That's her on the right.) Blackwell said something else worth noting, so I'll raise the point today. Blackwell suggested that a writer should first do all her research for a novel but then put the research away when she starts to write. I understood her point immediately and have even made it myself in this blog: Writing a historical novel is all about telling a story, not showing off how much you know. Or having to feel burdened by how much you know. Understanding this point is crucial to understanding how good fiction works. But, even so, I felt moved to ask: You didn't research anything after you started writing Hunger? Weren't there new questions that came to mind as you wrote? Blackwell admitted that, yes, of course, certain questions of fact did come up and when that happened she would briefly revisit her original research or simply Google for an answer. But she stuck to her first point that a writer needs to put the research away. I then threw out something I'd heard years ago from writer Tracy Chevalier when she "visited" UCA (via a live feed from a studio in London). Chevalier suggested that a writer should write her story first--to make sure she really remains centered on the story--and then do whatever research seems necessary for the sake of that story.

Blackwell found that a tough one to swallow, and I admit that I do too. After all, aren't our stories often discovered or significantly shaped by the research? There's no way of getting around that they are. I simply can't imagine having started my Van Gogh novel without doing substantial reading into Van Gogh's biography, which directly affected what scenes I decided needing showing. And as for putting away the research you've already completed, I found myself only in half-sympathy. Yes, there is quite a lot of reading and notetaking that I carried out before I started composing Yellow that I never actually looked at while I wrote. Perhaps even the majority of my reading and notetaking. On the other hand, as I wrote I found myself having to research certain areas more substantially than mere fact checking (although I did plenty of that too). Most of all, I found myself delving deeper and deeper into Van Gogh's Collected Letters. These became my bible, my most important resource: for opinions on all sorts of matters but most importantly contemporary painters, for descriptive details about places and people, and for a sense of his emotional and intellectual life at different periods. Before I started composing Yellow, I read three different collections of selected letters, but while I was writing I had the nagging feeling that I might be missing something. So I ordered, at some expense, the hardbound three volume Collected Letters and plowed into it as I kept writing. I tried to read ahead. That is, I tried to be done with the letters from a certain period in his life before I wrote--or rewrote--the relevant scenes in Yellow. Carrying out this reading drastically improved and broadened my novel. Did it fundamentally alter the plot? No, actually, it probably didn't. But it made every scene more convincing, more vivid, more real. At least to me. If I'd just sat content with the already considerable research I'd carried out by the time I started writing, my book would be much lesser for it. Maybe this means I just didn't do enough in the first place. And maybe Elise Blackwell--an admirably thorough person and writer--did.


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