Research is a little like an iceberg. A lot of it doesn’t show. How do you decide how much research to put into your work?
by Dietrich Kalteis
Depending on the story I’m writing I may go about the research differently from book to book. I look for interesting facts and details that lend authenticity and accuracy, which allows the reader to believe the settings and what’s going on in the story. When I wrote House of Blazes, set during San Francisco’s earthquake and fire of 1906, I found a wealth of historical information: archives, newspaper articles from the time, first hand accounts and diaries, historical books, archives, web pages. I also found hundreds of photos from the times. There was so much, I had to put blinders on, being careful not to turn the novel into a history lesson. The photos alone gave me fantastic descriptive images, and I picked up some great expressions of the times from the first-hand accounts and diaries.
One of the best parts of researching a story is going to the location I’m writing about. Of course, it’s not always possible, but it helps to experience the where, as well as to meet the people, see the architecture and so on.
I didn’t have to work as hard or go as far when I researched for Zero Avenue, which is set during the early days of the Vancouver punk music scene. Although I didn’t live in Vancouver right at the time, it’s home now, and I know it well, along with most of the locations I wrote about. I’m also a longtime fan of the music which helped make it easier. And the same went for the next novel, Poughkeepsie Shuffle, (Sept. 2018), set in Toronto in the mid-eighties, where I lived at the time.
The folly of including too much information is a writer can step all over the story’s pace. The details are important, sure, but the story also needs that flow to hold the reader’s attention. So, it’s important to include the strongest images for the reader to paint the scenes I’m describing, all without slowing the story.
And the descriptions have to suit my voice. And more often they have to suit the voices of my characters if something is told from their point of view. Sometimes the details are just snippets and they get tossed around quite casually.
Accuracy is key in any research, so I try to cross-check the reliability of any information I find. If the details end up in the narrative then they have to be right; not so much if it’s coming from a character. They’re allowed to be flawed, the writer isn’t.
Surrounding and immersing myself with a sea of research, sketching diagrams, writing notes to myself, listening to music from a particular period, talking with people who experienced what I’m writing about, all of it helps get me into the setting, imagining what a different time or place was like.
And since I don’t usually plot ahead, it’s amazing what comes along via the research. Sometimes an account, fact or news story comes along and adds a subplot, lending another layer to the whole thing.
When I think of William Faulkner writing the outline for A Fable across his office walls, I appreciate how working on a computer makes the whole process easier and faster these days. I can edit or Google something in mere moments without even getting up. But there is something to the organic process, and I like to go to a library and look things up, and I like to write first drafts in longhand.
So how much research to put into the work? I go for details that paint the best visuals for the reader. It’s key to never let any detail slow the pace. The whole thing to move along with interesting visuals created through the help of careful research. Above all, the writing has to sound authentic.