My current project is a novel set a century ago in Charleston, South Carolina. I’ve only been to Charleston once, and that for only a single afternoon more than a dozen years ago. I remember the high bridge driving south into the city. I remember lunch and a bookstore. I remember park and battery at the end of the peninsula. What makes me think I could write a convincing novel about a character in a city I cannot claim to know in a period I haven’t experienced?
Knowledge that I am writing a work of fiction, not a historical biography and confidence that I can do sufficient research with texts and the Internet to weave the telling details and plead my shortcomings for the rest.
David Nicholls, writing in Google v old-fashioned legwork—how to research a novel for The Guardian shares some of his insights on the topic.
While there’s clearly no agreed method for an author to acquire a sense of place, I’ve always wanted to know a location at first hand, and have always been able not only to place a pin in the map but also to specify a date and time, so that the flat on Rankeillor Street in Edinburgh where Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew wake on 15 July 1988 is the same sublet flat that I shared with 15 other students during that summer’s fringe festival. This is not to say that the events are autobiographical – that’s rarely the case – but experience provides a sort of sense-memory, an authenticity that hopefully finds its way on to the page, because if the background is tangible and real, then hopefully events in the foreground will seem more plausible, too. Mapping and timing the journeys also seems important, and while writing One Day I stomped from Rankeillor Street up Arthur’s Seat then down to the New Town and on to the point on Hanover Street where the final conversation takes place. I can’t claim that the re?enactment had a huge effect on the text; the only detail I remember lifting from life was the cock-and-balls graffiti that someone had scrawled in green Sharpie on the trig point on Arthur’s Seat. Did they bring the pen with them with this in mind? I wondered, and had Emma wonder this, too.
My first, unpublished, novel relied heavily on such reality checks. I drove to the places in and around Cleveland where the action took place. I used my own home as a model for the home where my protagonist lived. Only when I went somewhat far afield for the final chapters of the story, did I create a fictitious estate on a semi-fictitious western Lake Erie island.
One of the advantages of walking and driving the places in your story is that you gather the unexpected experience: a chance encounter or discovery of a shop you had never seen before. These are telling details that make a difference. Nicholls continues.
The most obvious inadequacy of such an approach is that if the author doesn’t leave their desk, then nothing happens to the author. Some writers have fun with this mingling of personal and fictional experience, and I enjoyed both Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station and Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, books where a blurring of author and narrator invites the reader to think, my God, did this stuff really happen? Even when the work is unequivocally fictional, the author wants to bring something home from the journey, a useful souvenir. Visiting a book fair in Moscow I found myself sharing a table in the hotel’s breakfast room with some noisy and self-confident armament manufacturers and this encounter, heavily fictionalised, found its way into Us, as did the smallest hotel room in Venice, a heavy, salty meal in Munich and the sleepless night that followed, an awkward encounter with the bikers outside a bar in Amsterdam. There’s that familiar feeling: this is an awful experience, maybe I can use it.
One of my favorite writers, and mentor-at-a-distance, Lawrence Block, went to some pains to describe the angst of getting the bus route right or knowing on which side of East 62nd street the pizza shop is located on. Block’s main reason for checking such trivia is that if the writer gets their facts wrong, a few—most likely, very few—readers will spot the mistake and be jolted out of the story by the incongruous factoid.
We strike a balance. I know how easily I can be sucked into research heaven as an excuse for procrastination. Years ago, when I was learning to paint with watercolors, my father told me of his experience as a Fine Arts major. He preferred watercolors because “you can’t fiddle with them.” Oils, on the other hand could be endlessly painted, scraped, repainted and since no artist can ever really be done, there could be no final product. (I am reminded that Leonardo da Vinci carried La Gioconda–The Mona Lisa–with him for more than 20 years, working on and off on the project as he willed.)
Writing, if we allow ourselves the luxury, can be like that. We may never finish, unless and editor (or agent) is there ripping pages from the typewriter before we have a chance to make just one more change.