Exercise: Research for Authenticating Detail in Fiction Writing
Writers use research for many reasons: to find inspiration, to develop an idea, to gather the authenticating detail. We may consider art to be a type of research in itself. This exercise leads you through a process of incorporating research into fiction.
Step 1: Drafting a Story: Write a story of any length that involves a character who wants to take on a new profession that somehow causes conflict. The profession you choose can be common or uncommon: Maybe the character wants to become a Big Foot impersonator, a professional cuddler or professional mourner, a golf ball retriever, a gardener for a botany professor, an iceberg mover, etc. Your story will require you to research what is involved in the profession you choose. Bring your story to class.
Step 2: Identifying Authenticating Details that Are Missing: After an initial draft of this story emerges, sit down with a small group of fellow writers and read the story together. Then take time to reflect on your story as a group of readers: What authenticating details (i.e., details that make a story seem more persuasive or "real") would add to this story? In particular, for the purposes of this exercise, what would you like to know about the characters' professions? What details and "insider knowledge' would these characters have about their professions? Make a list of what "insider knowledge" you want to find, as authenticating detail in your story. Do this for each story in your group; work together as a team of practitioners to come up with a list for each story.
Step 3: Finding These Authenticating Details: Now you'll need to consider how you'll go about finding answers to your research questions. How can you find details about your character's career that only someone in that career would know?
In The Art of Creative Research, Philip Gerard recommends making a research plan that answers the following questions:
A few sources to consider as you start this research:
Websites like this can only take you so far in your research. After browsing these websites for details that might round out your knowledge of your character, think about other strategies you have for researching your story:
For more information about conducting research as a writer, see this collection of resources.
Step 4: Revising Your Story: Revise the story you began in Step 1 to include the research you found in Step 3. Remember that you don't need to include every single detail or fact that you collected. Use only what serves the story. Don't overwhelm the plot or the character development with random facts; instead carefully select from your research to embed the apt description, the unanticipated prop, the unexpected reference to a detail of the environment. Use the details you've collected to reveal the conflicts and complexities that drive your story.
The term "research" is derived from a french term from the late sixteenth century: a compilation of the old french prefix 're-,' which adds intensity to a word, and 'cerchier,' which translates as 'to search.'