|Katherine photographs her settings|
“Life is Research” – Katherine Neville
My most frequently-asked question, from students, interviewers, and fellow writers alike, is, “How do you do your research?”
Anyone who has ever read even a smidgen of my writing knows that I’ve really “done my homework.” (Well, it isn’t exactly homework. That makes it sound so tedious.) It’s a fascination that I share with my readers from ages 9 to 90: Curiosity. When I’m curious, I become obsessive until I discover the answer. The answer doesn’t always have to appear in the book. But the knowledge, the feeling, is still there beneath the surface, like the “7/8 of the iceberg” that Hemingway was always talking about.
I was curious to know what the famous French revolutionary, Jean Paul Marat, was about to eat for dinner, when he was stabbed to death in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday (included in the first novel The Eight);
I was curious about how one could fly a bush plane from the Aleutian islands of Alaska to Russian Kamchatka without being discovered on radar (thus came inspiration for The Fire);
I was curious to figure out how to forge a billion dollars in “bearer bonds”–prior to digital image processing–using only a Hasselblad and a printing press (A Calculated Risk);
and curious to know how Hitler’s astrologer, his priest (who edited Mein Kampf), and his “motivational speaking coach” all died mysterious deaths at around the same time (The Magic Circle). And so on.
Curiosity may have killed a few proverbial cats, but the results of my researches into little-known esoteric trivia have fascinated millions and millions of readers all over the world (for more than thirty years, in forty languages.)
There’s just one little hitch. Knowing When to Stop!
True confession: I am an Information Junkie. I try to do all my research “on the ground,” in little-known, far-flung locales.
|Katherine in Tunisia|
Or poring through rare books on obscure topics, of the sort I’ve collected since I was really young. I try never to do research online unless absolutely necessary. The moment I type in an online query, “it” always begins google-lassoing me, dragging me through a series of hyperlinks, and then “it” winds up asking me: “Would you like to order this book from Amazon?” For those of us who are dataholics, doing our research on the web would be like an alcoholic living between an all-night bar and an all-night liquor store.
My former neighbor, Martin Cruz Smith, and his wife, Em, once told me that the research phase was “Bill’s” (that’s his name) favorite part of writing each of his novels. When I asked Bill why, he said, “Because when you’re doing the research, everything is still potential. You can go in any direction. The world is open. Once you start putting words on paper, the book starts to become concrete, the characters, the plot… you’re committed.”
That’s it! Commitment! As soon as I (the ‘Author-ity’ of my own novel) have committed myself to the characters and their story, I am hidebound to take off my ‘brilliant researcher’ hat and follow the first rule of Fiction, which we all ought to know: “When in doubt, leave it out.”
Case in point: A few years ago, I was one of three authors–with the wonderful Daniel Stashower and David Baldacci–who’d been invited to launch a new Sirius XM radio show ”
Author Café.” (The brainchild of Maggie Smith and Kim Alexander, co-producers of the late Sirius Book Channel.) We three authors chatted extemporaneously for a few hours about the art, the craft, and the vocation of being full-time, successfully published writers. When the topic of research came up, I stated, in my most “Author-itarian” voice:
“It is a well-known and accepted rule of fiction that–regardless how interesting your research may be to you, personally–NOTHING should appear in the book unless it serves to develop the character or advance the plot!”
Check out the full interview here
In the recording studio, David and Daniel were smiling and nodding their agreement. But I could see the ironically-raised eyebrows of my two fellow authors who knew me, and my eccentric work ethic, very well. So I had to admit:
“Having said that, I confess that I am the Queen of self-indulgence, and I’ll go to any lengths to try to shoehorn in some research that I’ve found fascinating–in the confident hope that my readers will find it so, too!” (Or some such total rubbish.)
I am a reader, you are a reader. We are all readers. We readers don’t relish wading through a plot that looks like someone’s academic tutorial, or wallowing in some writer’s pontificating drivel. We want to be captivated by a wonderful story. We are writers ourselves, becausewe were longtime readers. And we want to read more of what we have been missing. In my case, I became a writer because I couldn’t find enough of the swashbuckling, adventure/quest novels that I loved: Rafael Sabatini, Lord Byron, Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson, adventures in exotic lands and on the high seas.
So each morning, before I sit at my desk (surrounded by 700 “current” research books, and far too many research articles–and a few computers) I have to remind myself of this mission:
1. Nothingshould appear in the book except to develop character or advance plot;
2. When in Doubt, Leave it Out;
3. It’s the Story!
Amen.(Well…except if it’s something really interesting!)
Thanks, Katherine, for your great insights and advice. Now, for our readers here – Is there an exotic location you would like to travel to do your own “research” for a story? Leave a comment and thanks for visiting us here on Rogue Women Writers.
. . . Karna Small Bodman