NYT bestseller Joy Fielding weaves together compelling plot lines in her latest novel, The Housekeeper. Given the variety of books Joy writes, the Rogues were interested in learning about her research skills. And her response was quite intriguing…
I’m often asked how much research I do for my novels. The answer is simple: as little as possible.
I know that a lot of authors love doing research. I am not one of them. Research, to me, feels too much like homework, and I often say that if I’d wanted to do research, I’d be writing non-fiction. I chose fiction because I love making things up. From the time I was a little girl, I loved creating characters and making up stories to put them in. In those days, I did it with paper dolls. Nowadays, it’s my computer.
Having said I don’t enjoy research, I understand that a certain amount of it is necessary in order to make my stories believable. So if, for example, I’m telling a story about a young female prosecutor in Chicago being stalked by a man accused of rape, as I did in Tell Me No Secrets, I need to understand something about how the Chicago legal system works. To that end, I traveled to Chicago and met with several lawyers and judges, and followed that up with a lot of ponderous reading of legal texts. (Had I known before I started that Chicago has the most complicated legal system in the United States, I would have chosen somewhere else!) I did this because I felt it was important that a lawyer reading my book wouldn’t throw it down in disgust, proclaiming, “This would never happen!”
In See Jane Run, I told the story of a woman who went out one day and simply forgot who she was. So, first of all, I needed to know if this was even possible, and if so, what might have caused such an event, and how it might be treated. Again, I spent a lot of time in libraries, reading up on different medications and fugue states, and I quizzed virtually every doctor I knew. For Still Life, a novel about a woman in a coma, told from her point of view, I needed to know all about comas. It was important to get my facts straight in order for the reader to buy into the situation.
Thankfully, the Internet has made research much easier. I no longer have to trudge over to my local library in the middle of a snowstorm to get the information I need. I have only to press a few keys on my computer, and all the details I could possible ask for are right there in front of me.
For my novel Cul-De-Sac, the story of a neighborhood whose quiet façade is shattered by a shooting in the middle of the night, I learned far more than I ever wanted to know about guns by just tapping in a few key words. But in this case, I knew I needed more, so I actually went to a gun range in Florida, talked to the people who worked there, and absorbed the atmosphere first-hand, as well as handling and firing a real gun myself. (Guilty secret: I quite enjoyed it.) If I hadn’t done this, I doubt the book would have worked nearly as well.
My latest novel, The Housekeeper, is the story of a woman who hires a housekeeper to help care for her aging parents, only to watch that woman start to take over their lives. Since one of the characters has Parkinson’s Disease, I had to learn all about its various stages, while simultaneously trying to suppress my incipient hypochondria. (Not always easy.) And I relied on my sister-in-law, a successful Toronto Realtor, for information on what’s involved in selling real estate. I also do a lot of what I call “casual research,” reading books and articles on things that interest me in general, and even occasionally taking courses. (I actually have a post-doctoral credit in family therapy, although I don’t have a doctorate in anything.)
So, I guess that I’m grudgingly learning to enjoy doing a certain amount of research, although the best part of writing for me will always be the part where I get to make things up.
What about you, readers? How important is it that all the details in a book be strictly accurate?
Great article about the depth of research needed to make the books believable. I’d say you do just the right amount! Never knew that about the Chicago legal system.
Just enough research to make it believable is the key, but I always have to remind myself that I’m not writing a textbook!
I loved See Jane Run. And I can’t wait to read The Housekeeper—I had elderly parents and now volunteer with Hope Hospice, so I’m a bit hypersensitive to the issues.
It looks like you DO a lot of compelling research for your terrific novels!! Now, I look forward to reading THE HOUSEKEEPER! Thanks for being our guest today!
I am a forever fan, Joy–you have transported me with your writing more times than I have fingers. And your latest sounds fantastic!
LOL, I thought you might have been building up to moonlighting as a maid. Great insight on research. I have to admit, it’s often my favorite part of writing a book.