Guns, Drugs, and Elvis: A Guide to Research for Fiction Writers
A novelist and creative writing teacher revises the injunction to "write what you know"
A few years ago, a reviewer wrote this about my second pseudonymous novel: "Kenneth Abel must be either a cop or a mafioso. He really knows his drugs."
Sadly, "Kenneth Abel" was nothing so glamorous. What he was at the time that review was published was an assistant professor of English at Kenyon College, and what he knew was that he had a Shakespeare class to prepare for the next morning and a stack of English 1-2 papers to grade waiting in his office in Sunset Cottage. Some fiction writers wander the world in search of a great story, or throw themselves into the lives of their characters--hunting lions in Africa, fighting bulls in Spain, enlisting as a mercenary in some distant colonial war. The rest of us do research.
One of the most famous pieces of advice given to young writers is "Write what you know." And yet, as anyone who has ever taught fiction writing to undergraduates can testify, telling an eighteen-year-old to "write what she knows" is dangerous: what young people "know" is what they've seen on TV, along with the horror that is middle school and the world-weary decadence of 2:00 a.m. at the Psi U lodge. "Please," I find myself begging them six weeks into a fiction workshop, "don't write what you know!" In fact, if I could revise this most basic rule of writing, it would be, "Don't write what you know; know what you write."
So how do you know what it's like to work as an Elvis impersonator in the Philippine liberty port of Olongapo, as Kenyon's Writer-in-Residence P.F. Kluge describes in his novel Biggest Elvis? Or to be a union organizer in Iowa meat-packing plants, like one of Kenyon Review editor David Lynn's characters in Wrestling with Gabriel? Or to run a scrap metal yard, the setting at the heart of Kenyon Review fiction editor Nancy Zafris's novel The Metal Shredders?
How do you investigate a murder, or commit one? What's it like to deal drugs in a New Orleans housing project? How does it feel to smoke hashish in a brothel in Baluchistan in 1842, or to stand trial for heresy in Renaissance Florence?
The answer to all those questions, of course, is research--or, more accurately, the way a novelist combines that research with imagination. Like the foundation of a building, research gives the writer's imagination a solid basis in reality to support the mind as it shapes a world. For a fiction writer, research frees the mind to explore the human experience within any situation.
Fans of the historical novelist Patrick O'Brien often express their amazement at the remarkable detail with which he recreated the daily life of a British warship during the Napoleonic wars. Many of those details can be found in history books, biographies, or the ships' logs gathering dust in the archives of the British Admiralty. But it is the novelist's imagination that breathes life into those facts by considering what a man might see, smell, and feel as he stands on a ship's deck on the midnight watch. Research is a novel's rigging, the intricate web of lumber and rope that one uses to catch the wind; it takes the imagination to fill those sails and get the story moving.
To write about life on the killing floor, David Lynn talked his way into a harrowing tour of a meat-packing plant, following the animals down the production line from slaughter to draining, disemboweling, and then on to the various stages of slicing, dicing, and packing. P.F. Kluge's Biggest Elvis began in a piece of journalism that he wrote for Playboy magazine about nights spent among the bars and brothels of Olongapo when the fleet was in. Nancy Zafris spent time on the operator's platform of a metal shredder, straining to catch the words of a scrap metal dealer while the machine chewed up a car. In each case, that brief experience was enough to set the imagination working, and the sights, sounds, and smells that they brought away breathed life into a story written in the quiet room where the real work of making a novel gets done.
It's easy to get things wrong: I've received letters from observant readers complaining that I put a subway stop on the wrong corner of an intersection in downtown Boston or reversed the traffic flow on a one-way street. (Maps, I've learned, are not to be trusted.) A geologist wrote to me a few years ago pointing out that I'd put the wrong kind of rocks in a field in southern Louisiana. (Those particular rocks, he noted, are found only in the next parish, some twenty miles to the north.) And God help you if you get the guns wrong! Some readers of crime novels, I've discovered, care more about the gun a character draws than his reason for using it.
So careful research is an important first step for a novelist. If you know what you write, your reader will believe that you write what you know. But good fiction is finally about character. What I look for when I research a novel--talking to cops, observing criminal court proceedings, or reading the autobiographies of those who have smoked hashish in Baluchistan or stood trial for heresy in Renaissance Florence--isn't simply the details of that process, but rather how the people involved inhabit the experience. Flannery O'Connor observed that "anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days." That doesn't mean, as some of my students believe, that one should write only about childhood, but rather that the emotions one experiences in childhood can teach a writer how to understand any experience, no matter how distant from our own lives.
"If you want to write fiction," I tell my students, "start by learning everything you can about the world your characters inhabit, and then use your imagination to bring them to life."
--Professor of English Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, whose scholarly interests range from Shakespeare to film, has published a series of crime novels under the pseudonym Kenneth Abel.
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