Monday, January 10, 2011

Feed the Muse with Facts

A belated Happy New Year to everyone!

This week I’m teaching at Lesley University’s low residency MFA program for creative writing in Cambridge, MA. Each semester begins with an intensive residency on campus where student writers in five different genres (stage and screen, grown-up fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and kids lit) attend seminars and lectures, critique groups, readings, and meetings with their individual mentors. Then they go off and submit monthly packets to their mentor (me, for example) for feedback.

Being of the nonfiction persuasion, I realize how important research is for writing in every genre. And I’m still surprised this is news to so many students. Sometimes it’s as basic as—you’re setting your steampunk novel in Victorian England. So what are the people wearing and what technology are you going to show us? Or, your character is crossing a large desert. How is she going to survive? Hmmm.

So now I regularly teach a research seminar in which I stress that facts are not just necessary for all sorts of writing, they can actually feed the Muse. How?

Background information isn’t background, it provides a framework for your writing. If you set your novel in the South in the early 60s, you better know about Nehi. And you’d better understand not only historic details, but also attitudes. They permeate your story even if your plot has nothing to do with, say, civil rights or racial relations.

Sometimes your research takes your work in directions you hadn’t imagined. One of my students was writing a middle-grade mystery with a villain who hated crows. Her first assignment—learn everything she can about these birds. When she found out that scientists proposed poisoning of crows on Cape Cod in an effort to save the piping plovers from further depredation, she found a way of deepening her mystery by creating a new character, an impassioned ornithologist at a Wildlife Center, and a new subplot along with her.

Research provides the ring of truth that keeps your reader going. Another student, another mystery, this one a YA. Her villain killed someone with a heart condition with an overdose of digitalis. Our detective/heroine picked up this piece of the puzzle when she opened the medicine chest at the villain’s house during a party and saw the villain’s father’s medicine. Okay, how much medicine would it take to OD? Could that many pills be taken from a man with a heart condition without him noticing? I don't think so. How about the villain stealing samples that her doctor dad got for heart meds from pharmaceutical companies? But then it couldn’t be digitalis because pharma only gives samples for new drugs they can make a profit on, not generics. Time to research!

Good research teaches readers about science or art forgery or whatever your plot involves. I have probably learned as much about Elizabethan England from historic novels as I have nonfiction books on that era. If the authors were making that stuff up instead of researching, shame on them. If they are doing that while writing books for kids, even worse. A pox on their houses (which, if you do your research, you’ll learn is a bastardized Shakespeare quotation and not a reference to the current mortgage crisis)!

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