Let’s Talk about Research in Creative Writing

Sitting at a meeting of my writers group last week, I found myself speaking about the importance of conducting proper research when constructing a novel.  After a few minutes of discussion on what I consider to be one of the fundamental elements to craft of writing, several members of the group expressed their surprise at the amount of research I tend to conduct in the process of writing a novel.  Another asked the importance of research, given the rather fantastical genres in which I generally write.

Literary critic Georg Lukács stated that characters “once conceived in the vision of their creator, live an independent life of their own; their comings and goings, their development, their destiny is dictated by the inner dialectic of their social and individual existence.”  He believed that characters “try to live their own lives,” independent of the author who created them.  This strive for independence, in turn, frequently forces an author to research places, activities, and fields in which he or she has never before had an interest.

Now, it should be noted that Lukás was in fact, a realist and the majority of his theories were applied specifically to works which could be classified as realism.  However, the same principles are easily applied to works of fiction.  To draw an example from my own work, the novel I am currently writing, a YA fantasy series, revolves around a world of martial arts and medieval swordplay.  When I first informed one of my long-time mentors about my initial ideas for the novel, her response was something akin to this:  “Sounds great!  Just one quick question.  What do you know about martial arts and swordplay?”  The answer, to quote George R.R. Martin, was something akin to: “Stick them with the pointy end?”

So began my journey into researching various forms of combat.  I did this by first, reading lots of books on various forms of martial arts, reading fiction which featured elaborate fight scenes, and even watching a few old kung-fu movies.  Then, I attended classes at local karate and jiu-jitsu dojos.  Though I did not partake of the actual courses, I conducted multiple interviews with instructors and observed students for hours on end, having specific movements demonstrated for me by students while I took extensive notes on the technique, instruction, and history of both disciplines.  When I had eventually written and completed these scenes to the best of my ability, one of these instructors was kind enough to read through and critique my action sequences.

Several months ago at the Dublin Writers Festival, I listened to a speech given by bestselling author, Dan Brown.  Brown addressed the topic of research, by stating that his most extensive research lies in the locations he describes in his novels.  He makes a habit, especially for his most recent novels such as The Inferno, of visiting the places that he plans to describe.  This research allows him to describe the locations with vivid accuracy and incredible levels of description.

Research is an important and vital part of the creation of a novel, no matter what the genre.  While it is true that authors of speculative fiction might be able to take more liberties than those of non-fiction or realism, research still remains a vital part of the writing process.

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