An academic friend of mine asked me this after my novel was announced. She’s familiar with how much work (a lot) goes into academic writing, and she wanted to know how fiction compares. It’s a good question, but I don’t really have a short answer.
My upcoming novel deals with a serial killer. Generally writing about characters who are nothing like you takes a lot of research. However … that is my research area. I’ve read true crime documents in the hundreds, from the cheap paperback, read-it-on-the-beach variety to textbooks used in training courses. That includes execution sermons from the 1700s, newspaper articles from the 1800s, the best-selling books from the 1900s, and Netflix documentaries from this century.
And that’s just the nonfiction. I also read widely when it comes to books generally shelved under thriller or mystery. True, there are some I put down before I finish them, but I still make it through most of them. (Usually I google the plot of something I’m not sure is worth my time, just to see if it’s worth finishing. Sometimes the twist or reveal makes me keep going just to see how the author pulls it off. Other times I put the book down because it’s the author playing with the reader instead of the characters doing the concealing – it’s a small difference, but a deal breaker for me.)
I picked up a lot of the true crime specifically for my academic side, but I generally want to just be able to enjoy my thrillers when it comes to fiction. I want a book I’m going to enjoy and want to finish because I care enough about how it’s all going to come out, whether it’s written “well” (whatever that means) or not. I want a story that’s going to pull me through to the end and then, only after I’m done, will I sit back and start to pick it apart.
(Side note: it kind of sucks making your passions into your research. You can’t just read things for fun anymore.)
So when I think about research for my fiction, I’m including not just the shelves upon shelves of true crime, but also all of those novels on my “have read” list. The novels don’t really feel like research, and the research is usually directed toward my nonfiction writing … but it all plays together when it comes to writing fiction about serial killers.
I tend to set my fiction in places I’ve lived so I don’t have to spend too much time figuring out the literal lay of the land or the sort of people who live there. I don’t need to look up “common Midwestern sayings” because it’s the sort of stuff that just comes out of my mouth, or to wonder about what sorts of restaurants are available to my characters. I’ll bring up the website and double-check the menu, but I already know where they’re eating.
I don’t usually stop in the middle of writing to look something up, but then, I also put off actually starting the writing for months at a time, letting things swirl around in my head. Not Your Mary Sue was initially drafted during NaNoWriMo 2017, in November, but I had the idea going since February that year. Instead of drafting on paper, I was putting things together in the back of my mind, examining them, and taking them apart, all the while reading things and adding to my general store of knowledge. I had a very solid idea of who my serial killer was – his motivations and his personality – before I sat down to write him.
So when I look back on it, the answer is “A lot. Seriously a lot.” That’s a ton of research I’ve been over and over, all sorts of words from both killers and authors, perspectives from killers to prosecutors to researchers to surviving family members of victims, all piled up and put into my writing. I mean, I wrote my dissertation on the history of written crime narratives in America and then came up with a situation where someone’s demanding his own written crime narrative. The two things can’t easily be separated.
So really, if you’re considering writing fiction, I’d suggest starting by taking a look at what you’re already reading and what you already know. The areas where yeah, maybe you need a little more exploration on some specific details, but you’ve already got the broad strokes handy. It’s not so much “write what you know” as “write what you’ve read,” especially when you’ve already done so much work to learn about your passions. Not every tiny tidbit of information is going to make it into a novel, but it can inform a lot, from plot to characterization to setting.
How about you? How much research do you do? Do you write fiction, nonfiction, or both?