writer at work

How Writers Approach Their Research

Nicholson Baker believes in get into his protagonist’s skin. He wrote his novel The Anthologist, a first-person narrative by a frustrated poet who’s struggling to write the introduction to a new anthology, wearing a floppy brown hat and an overgrown beard. He then set up a video camera and videotaped himself giving poetry lectures. After transcribed about 40 hours worth of tape, he ended up with some 1,000 pages of notes and transcription. Creating the voice of a rambling professor “was something I had to work on a lot in order to get the feeling of being sloppy.”

Junot Díaz researches obsessively. When writing Oscar Wao,” he read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy half a dozen times to get inside the head of his protagonist, an overweight Dominican teenager who’s obsessed with fantasy and science fiction.

I do a lot of planning. Some people think this is cold-blooded, but to me it sets your imagination free because we all know the blank page can be intimidating. So the more planning I do—brainstorming and running up ideas in advance—that means by the time I get to the beginning of the book, the screen is not blank. You have springboards and starting points. I use a great program called Scrivner, which allows me to have files for the ideas for each chapter and each scene. I can have files for the actual draft of the scene, and I can move them all around. It also helps me to plan a plot, because that is not my strength. I’m a big talker and make my characters talk. That’s easy. But pacing a plot, I really have to teach myself that.

Kazuo Ishiguro, author of six novels, including the Booker-prize winning Remains of the Day typically spends two years researching a novel and a year writing it. Obsessive preparation “gives me the opportunity to have my narrators suppress meaning and evade meaning when they say one thing and mean something else.”

In spite of all the groundwork, some novels fail to come together, including one that took place in medieval Britain. “I showed my wife a segment that I had honed down and she said, “This is awful. You have to figure out how they speak to each other. They’re speaking in a moron language,” he says.

Hilary Mantel spent five years researching and writing the book, Wolf Hall, her Booker Prize-winning Tudor drama set in the court of Henry VIII, out in the U.S. this month. The trickiest part was trying to match her version to the historical record. To avoid contradicting history, she created a card catalog, organized alphabetically by character. Each card contained notes showing where a particular historical figure—such as protagonist Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s adviser—was on relevant dates.  She says, “You really need to know, where is the Duke of Suffolk at the moment? You can’t have him in London if he’s supposed to be somewhere else.”

To research his 2009 novel Let the Great World Spin, which is set in New York in the 1970s and is a finalist for the National Book Award, Colum McCann went on rounds with homicide and housing cops, read oral histories of prostitutes from the era and watched archival film footage.

Find an organizational scheme for your notes and materials; keep up with it (if you are transcribing sound files or notebooks, don’t let yourself fall behind); and be faithful to it: Don’t obsess over an apparently better scheme that someone else has. At some point during your work, someone will release what looks like a brilliant piece of software that will solve all your problems. Resist the urge to try it out, whatever it is, unless 1) it is endorsed by people whose working methods you already know to be like your own and 2) you know you can implement it quickly and easily without a lot of backfilling. Reworking organizational schemes is incredibly seductive and a massive timesuck.

Before writing The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein spent three years running the track in a custom Mazda Miata at the amateur level Sports Car Club of America. “Everything Enzo [his protagonist] says about racing a high-performance car at more than 150 mph, I learned in my Miata. How to put your feet like ‘eggshells on the pedal’, smooth on and smooth off. Balance and kinesthetics, like driving by the seat of your pants, discipline and patience, like not slamming on the brakes if you go into a spin, but going against your instincts and waiting, giving more gas so the rear end can gain traction and move forward again.”

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist