Research is vital to a compelling story - minor details in the setting, background, culture or historical placement can make or break a narrative. This week's guest poster, Susan Sloate, suggests that research is also a good substitute for plot! What do you think?
Research: It’s So Much Easier than Plot
By Susan Sloate
I’m sure by now that you as writers already know some of the wonderful benefits of research in writing a novel. The obvious one is that it provides you with information to draw on in creating the world of your story (something that’s important in a lot of novels but critical in historical). It can add flavor. It can make the reader feel like he or she is really there (this is especially true if your research turns up small unknown details readers can drool over).
Research has a lot of other benefits, though, and you ought to consider these as well. For instance, it’s the best possible way to procrastinate, yet still look like you’re working. You can ‘research’ indefinitely, without having to write a single word. “Oh, I’m still doing research,” you can say airily when friends and family wonder why your manuscript still consists of a single blank page. It makes you sound industrious without having to produce anything—the ultimate joy for a novelist. Everyone thinks you’re working your butt off, while you’re just enjoying reading what someone else slaved over. Hah!
It also allows you to blame others (unless you want to do the ultimate trick and nobly take responsibility for any errors). “My research didn’t turn that up” always sounds like the nonfiction writers you consulted in good faith were the ones at fault here. After all, you tried, didn’t you? Is it your fault these dumb scholars didn’t get it right, or left something out?
Research as Plot
For me, though, one of the hidden benefits of research is that the more research you do, especially on a historical novel, the less you actually have to come up with creatively in the way of plot. Seriously. If you can manage it—and the best historical writers do—you can blend what you find in your research with your characters to create what feels like a seamless story tapestry. And the beauty of it is that you therefore have less to invent on your own, because you’re using the research to help you plot.
Want an example? My latest novel, FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition (co-authored with Kevin Finn), is about the JFK assassination (a timely subject this fall, with the 50th anniversary of that event). I will admit we spent years researching this one, but I believe in the process, we turned up stuff that became gold in the story.
For instance, we learned in studying JFK’s life that his father Joe was worried that Jack’s various illnesses, especially his Addison’s disease (a weakness of the adrenal glands), could hit the headlines and destroy his political career. And while an aide always carried a bag of medicines when JFK was out in public, what would happen if he ever got separated from them?
Turns out Joe Sr. had considered that possibility. The solution? He took safe-deposit boxes in bank vaults all over the country and stashed medications for Jack in all of them. The idea was that no matter where he was in the US, if he ever ran out of medication or got separated from that black medical bag, he could still get fresh refills, and most important, it could be kept a secret.
When we learned that, we knew we had to use it. I mean, how fantastic is that for a plot point? An incapacitated president desperate for more meds but can’t tell anyone? LOVE it!
So in our story, at one point all three of our intrepid heroes, in terrible danger, manage to get to a bank vault with one of those special safe-deposit boxes. NOBODY who has ever written fiction about JFK has ever used that. But we who had done the research—we could, and did.
We Couldn't Have Made It Up
I’ll tell you honestly that we couldn’t have made this stuff up. Some of it is so outrageous, no one would ever believe it. (And we wouldn’t have dared write it.) But finding that basis in fact gave us the confidence to go out on a limb, because we knew it had actually happened. And because it was fresh material, stuff no one else had woven into fiction before us, it made us look like creative geniuses.
Research is a Two Edged Sword
This is, of course, a two-edged sword. For years after the publication of the first edition of CAMELOT in 2003, we received wonderful compliments about our original and exciting plot. People would point out story points they especially enjoyed and ask how in the world we came up with them. And we would have to (painfully, at times) admit that actually, we hadn’t: it was true, and came out of our research. All we did was fit it into the framework of our story.
Funny, they would then look disappointed and murmur something about what a good job we’d done with the research. It somehow never sounded as enthusiastic as their compliments on our plot. Ah, well.
On one hand, it’s never fun demurring from a sincere compliment. On the other, it’s amazing how many wonderful ideas you can get from delving into the research. Ideas you can use to push your plot forward in a unique way, because you’ve got the facts to back it up.
Yeah, it takes hours from the actual writing.
But on the other side of the coin, when you let the facts drive your story, think how many hours it saves.
Ever turned up something this special in your own research? Share your thoughts in the comments below - and share this post with your friends, too!