My Twitter bio used to be: “It’s easier if you make it all up.” This was a private joke. As a fiction writer, I’ve always been amazed at the research nonfiction writers do for their books. And I was relieved that I had no inclination or desire to write one of those pesky “true” books with, you know, FACTS in them. How annoying that must be! The hours in the library! The tracking down of reluctant interviewees! No thank you, nonfiction. Whew!
The puzzling thing about this is, I read a lot of nonfiction And when my first book came out, my own father confessed that he didn’t generally read fiction because “it’s not true, you know.” Yeah, Dad. I know. (To his credit, he read most of my first book, which is a beach reach for a twenty-something woman. The fiction-est fiction. That’s love, folks.)
You can probably already see where this is going. I’ve finally settled on a new book idea, but it’s a novel based on the life of a famous woman. This means that for the first time in my life, I’m having to do research. And I’m fantastically bad at it so far.
At first, I was just reading the biography about her. Just reading away! La la la! But then I realized that I was reading it like a normal book, one I just wanted to enjoy. Somewhere deep in m brain, I remembered that this wasn’t how I did it in college when I knew I was going to be quizzed on the book’s minutia.
I started over and began to take good notes. Within pages, I had a LONNNNNG scroll of disorganized notes and I could already see that this was going to be a hideous mess unless I started organizing them into sections. Now I’ve got sections like: Personality Traits, Life in NYC, Life at College, and Childhood.
But it’s not enough. This system is at best, a rough start. The problem is, I need to digest every last detail of hard information that exists on this person, absorb it, and then begin to create a fictional character based on those facts. Thankfully, we have very few records of how she really was, but there’s still so much I could get wrong–or even leaps I could make about her that feel untrue.
When I started, I really thought it’d be a matter of learning some dates and important names, but now I see there are a million tiny facts about a person that make her, her. For instance, let’s take me. I hate to drive; I don’t/will not ever/simply refuse to eat bananas; I’m prone to long conversations on the phone with old friends; I wear dresses almost every single day; and I enjoy extreme sports hobbies like rock climbing. None of these details is make or break but when added together you begin to get something that looks like a fully realized me.
This is what I need to do for my character and it’s very daunting. Never mind that I’m going to need to figure out what New York City was like in the 1950s. Hey, I know New York City pretty well. I lived there. But I lived there 2002-2006. Not exactly the same thing!
So far I’m enjoying the challenge of learning about a character instead of inventing her from scratch, but I could also use some help. Have you ever done research for a book or academic project? Are you sitting on some awesome system of organization you could share with me? Maybe something that involves index cards and a giant bow on your head?