Not every story has to be lived to be written. That’s what imagination is for. If writers are going to produce more than one or two novels, they are probably going to have to extend their experience through the most readily available source . . . reading. I need to do research in order to be able to write many of my novels. Some of that research, as I wrote last week, has been through travel and trying out new experiences. Far more comes from books.
I consider it an imperative that any facts that come up in my novels be well . . . factual. So if wolf pups are going to be born in a story set in northern Minnesota, I go to a book to find out how long a wolf’s gestation period is, what time of year the pups will be born, what their birthing den is apt look like, how old they will be when they are first fed solid food, how older siblings will interact with them, when the family will move them to a new site and more.
Why? This is a story, after all. Can’t I just bring wolf pups into the world any time it serves my plot to do so? The answer lies in something Coleridge famously referred to as “a suspension of disbelief.” The writer has a contract with the reader. The writer says, “Everything I’m telling you is true.” This is the contract even when elements of the story are obviously fantastic–ghosts, elves, unicorns. Whatever a story is built from must seem true, however, because if readers find themselves saying, “I know better than that!” they are very apt to quit reading. One of the secrets of creating true-to-life stories, fantastic or realistic, is to make sure all the facts–every single one that could possibly be corroborated–are accurate. If I don’t, if, for instance, I have my wolf pups born in July, any reader who knows better will instantly lose faith in every other aspect of my story.
So when I’m preparing to write a story, sometimes I do a lot of reading. Usually, if I need information, I simply read and read and read, rarely taking notes. My object is to know what it is I’m writing about as though I have lived it myself. Then, when I begin writing, I can dip into what I’ve learned from reading in exactly the same way I dip into my own experience.
Sometimes, though, I dare build parts of my story out of material that is so completely unfamiliar to me that, despite all my reading, even despite lots and lots of reading, I can never expect to absorb it entirely. That is the case with Blue-Eyed Wolf. One dimension of that novel is an older brother who enlists to fight in Vietnam. I needed to build a key part of the story from letters written home from Vietnam. During the years that war was tearing this country apart, my life was totally consumed by babies. I barely followed the news. As to what it was like to be a soldier in Vietnam, I knew nothing. Less than nothing.
And so I read and read and read. I marked up books. I took notes. I watched films. I listened to interviews. I learned that a shell coming in at night sounds like a freight train falling from the sky, that when a high velocity bullet hits a man’s chest it makes an entry hole the size of a dime and an exit hole the size of a fist, that the effect of stepping on a mine called a Bouncing Betty is called “the old step and a half.” And more . . . much, much more. I learned and marked up and took notes on infinitely more than I will ever use. More, I’ll admit, than I wanted to know. But my story must know it, and so I read on.
If I work well, out of the stacks of books on my study floor now highlighted and studded with sticky notes, out of the information I wrote onto color-coded note cards, I will glean a few solid and distinctive facts, ones that can bring those letters to life, ones that will bring that desperate and distant war to life for my young readers.
Someone said once that stories aren’t an imitation of life; they are really an imitation of other stories. That’s true even of the facts our stories are built from. We keeping borrowing, passing on what we have learned, creating new reality from old.
It’s called research.