Researching and Writing
Guest Post by Mitchell James Kaplan, author of
By Fire, By Water
“How did you do the research?” I’m amazed how many people ask this question, as if research were the hard part. For me, research is enjoyable, even exciting. You don’t have to think too much. You just explore.
I suppose every writer has a different way of doing research. My method is no method at all: I try to read everything and go everywhere that’s relevant: libraries, museums, foreign cities.
My research falls into two phases: the initial phase, which precedes writing; and the fact-checking phase, during and after the writing. The initial phase is all about feeding the imagination. You collect details. You look at paintings, statues, buildings. You observe the clothes people wear, their bearing, how they interact. A peasant in a painting by Breughel walks with a stoop, grasping a twisted walking-stick. A woman in a Vermeer holds herself with dignity. You read the works of authors from the time and place in which your novel will be set. You notice the authors’ tone. Cervantes’ voice is tinged with self-mockery and amusement. What does this say about his society? Caesar’s voice is practical, authoritative, devoid of self-doubt. Chaucer’s is full of wonderment. Milton’s is serious, probing, and powerful.
A great deal of the research, of course, comes from just living. For example, when I lived in Paris many years ago, I knew a woman who occupied a place near the pinnacle of French society (which is quite stratified, as compared to American society). I found this woman fascinating: her blend of ruthlessness and noblesse oblige; her uncanny ability to remove her Mask Of Warmth and replace it with a Mask of Ice – both of which were utterly convincing – so gracefully and effortlessly one hardly noticed the transition.
Years later, as I toiled on my first draft of “By Fire, By Water” and Queen Isabella materialized in my imagination, I realized she resembled this woman.
Even when you’re not actively thinking about them, the details you absorb arrange themselves in your mind, forming a world. Little by little, your imagination takes up residence in that world. Holding a candle in the face of vast darkness, your explore its back alleys, the sounds of cartwheels creaking and clattering down its streets, the odors of rotting vegetables and fresh pheasant in its open-air marketplaces.
Research, of course, is not an end in itself; it is the means to an end. The purpose of reading books and traveling to faraway lands and museums is to find the key to the world of your novel. After you enter, the key is no longer important. What is important is to look around, to observe, to note what you see.
My sense is that the story, in all its detail, exists somewhere even before the author discovers it. The author’s job is to go to that place and document everything. At night, when I go to sleep, I try to place myself in the world I’m researching. All the research is of no value unless I can see and taste and smell that world. During the entire time I’m writing a novel, I want to live in that world even more than this world. The world of the novel is real, in the same sense that numbers are real.
Again, just before writing a scene, I’ll close my eyes and place myself in that particular corner of that world. After that, the writing just happens. Sometimes, I’m thrilled with the result but find it doesn’t fit with the rest of the book. Sometimes a scene or sequence of scenes has to be adjusted or even discarded.
When I’m writing, I often leave blanks. What kind of bread did they eat? How much did it cost? How did they light that taper? My initial research didn’t provide all the detailed facts I needed, but I don’t want to interrupt the flow. I’ll fill in the blanks later.
As a historical novelist, you’re juggling three balls: psychological truth, dramatic form, and historical accuracy. Often, I’ll find I missed an important inflection in the arc of a character’s growth, or that a scene is out of place.
I’m not one of those writers who just sit down, write a book, and send it to their editors. I’m constantly going back and verifying that my story is valid – psychologically, dramatically, and historically – filling in gaps, rearranging the pieces. Sometimes it feels like I’ll never get it right. It’s a messy, often rewarding but occasionally infuriating business – just like life.
Mitchell Kaplan's website for more information about his book.
Now for the giveaway...
I have two copies of By Fire, By Water, courtesy of Other Press, to offer up for giveaway. This giveaway is open to US/Canada only and will end June 6th. The only requirement is to be a follower of this blog. You can gain an additional entry for tweeting or blogging about this giveaway. Please leave your email as well.
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