Monday, November 21, 2011

Re Re Research

My local indie bookstore just phoned me to say that a book I ordered (Dancing in the Glory of Monsters by Jason K. Stearns) is in and maybe I'd like to come pick it up today at lunch. It's a nonfiction title about the ongoing warfare in the country now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo for short). During my youth we called it Zaire. Before I was born it was the Belgian Congo. The ongoing war in DR Congo is said to be the deadliest conflict since World War II. [Thanks to BK Broyla for pointing out my original misstatement comparing the two wars.] It's an unbelievably horrific story that most people have never heard.

I'm reading up on this horror show because part of my work-in-progress is based in eastern DR Congo, where the fighting has been the worst and where atrocities and war crimes continue to this very day. In fact, as you read this, something unspeakable is likely happening in DR Congo. DR Congo also has the distinction of being the rape capital of the world. Isn't that nice?

This is all part of the research for my current novel. I had no idea things were so utterly hellish in DR Congo when I started writing; this is all stuff I've discovered along the way.

My WIP is set, unlike my other novels, in the present day. I did this so I wouldn't have to do a lot of research, but once I decided that my female lead was going to live for a while in a third-world country and for a variety of innocent reasons I chose DR Congo, I was back into the work of doing research. Mostly, you know, I wanted enough facts and enough of a feel for the place that I could create the appropriate verisimilitude in my reader. I did not want to become an expert in equatorial African history and politics. I just wanted to be able to believably write my setting and my supporting cast, but the situation in DR Congo is complex and so I'm doing more reading than I'd originally intended.

This always happens to me. In order to write a couple thousand words of description and setting, I end up reading a couple thousand pages of nonfiction. I have to know, apparently, a great deal more about the real historical place and time than I actually use in the novel. And, of course, I have to know more or less what's true so that I know how far I'm comfortable distorting that truth. The facts are always less important to me than the unity of my narrative. I don't write history books; I write fiction.

Still, I always wonder how much of the discovered history to include into the novels. I could have put a bunch of interesting facts about America in the Great Depression into the detective novel I just wrote. I could have worked a lot of interesting trivia into the Colonial American book I wrote last year. But most of the stuff I learned stayed out of the narratives, and likely most of the things I'll learn (or have already learned) about African small hold farms and Rwandan armies and Hutus and Tutsis and the UN relief efforts will remain outside of the book.

I'm aware that there is a genre called Historical Fiction that has its own set of tropes and expectations, but I don't really read this genre so I don't really know how my works compare to actual historical fiction. I want my readers to feel like they're wherever I'm sending them in space or time, but I don't want to teach history and I have little patience for books that attempt to recreate, brick-by-brick, a lost time or place. I want characters and humanity, darn it. Everything else is set dressing and costuming to me.

Does anyone here write historical fiction? How do you decide how much of your research to put in? What's the purpose of your research? Do you write because of the history, or is the history because of the story, if you take my meaning?


  1. I sometimes write stories based on true events that happened in the past in my life in another country ten or fifteen year ago, so even this is not strictly considered historical fiction, there are political and/or social issues that get enmeshed with the characters' lives. Hence, I do some research to feel more confident when I write the story.

  2. I guess what I'm thinking about is that after someone reads my new book, they won't have a good idea about what's actually happening in DR Congo and why; they'll just have seen some incidents in a small area of the country and read references to people and things but they won't have a historical context for any of it. Which I'm fine with, but I don't know if that will irritate a reader. Do you worry about how much the reader understands of the social/historical context of the story? Frankly, I like the idea of the reader being lost in a different world and never really getting their feet there.

  3. I guess it goes to show that with a good book there will ALWAYS be research.

    My book is a fantasy but is built in a time similar to the 1850's. I've done a bit of research but left it fairly loose since it is, indeed, a fantasy. Sometimes I worry people will call me on it and say I didn't research enough.

    I think no matter what authors will worry about doing it right.

  4. To answer your question, Scott, no, I don't worry. However, I later find that their understanding IS limited, but every reader is different. Some of them will be curious to learn more about the specific social or political matters and will do their own research. Some of them may be indifferent to them altogether. And there will be some readers who may get irritated. We can't please everyone all the time.

  5. I write literary fiction set in historical time periods, and I do loads more research than I include, because I want to be grounded in place and time even if the reader isn't. I want to pick details that are plausible, even if not strictly true. I see no need to go out of my way to give the reader historical context, though sometimes story context and historical context can overlap.

    I also do research because it can really shape my plot/character choices. I have a vague sense, pre-outlining, what I want my story to be about (on a below-surface level), and things I discover in my research that seem to fit that vision get explored more and often worked in.

    One side effect I get from the research is seeing things from my research that appear in other people's works. For example, I was reading Gob's Grief, by Chris Adrian(a really good book, BTW), and the prologue is largely based on this anecdote I came across from my own Civil War research about a 13 year old boy who is killed in action at Chickamauga. Reading that, I felt sort of like I was in on a very exclusive inside joke.

  6. S.P.: There's an author, whose name I can't for the life of me remember just now, who writes historical mysteries. She has a web page where she answers the emails from readers pointing out the mistakes she has made in her books. I believe nowadays she puts one deliberate false historical statement in each book, just for fun. I believe in getting my facts right, but you don't know what you don't know and at some point you have to stop doing research and start writing your own damned book, right?

    Julia: No, we can't please everyone. Since my habit of leaving the reader confused is deliberate, I am clearly not trying to please with the history/factual nature of my books. That's all just framework, not the point of it.

    Jabez: I pretty much do the same thing you do, and you explain it much more concisely than I can. Well do I know the inside joke feeling. That's one reason I put Shakespeare references in all my books.

  7. I think in doing the research, you make yourself more comfortable with the writing of the fiction. So what if no one really knows the context to which you refer, but you do, and that will show up in the writing.

    At least that's how I look at it, and I do a lot more research than necessary.

  8. Lindsey Davis. The Falco mysteries.

  9. Anne: Yes, exactly. Enough research to be comfortable writing our fiction. To speak authoritatively, if in a limited manner.

    Mary: That's her, yes. Ta awfully. We will need to expand our nonfiction shelving soon, you know.

  10. I do more and more research on my stories these days. I think that's due in part to my stories being less about me and more about other people. But I am also learning from my mistakes, and it does have a lot to do with comfort, like what Anne is saying. I do research to feel more confident in my work, so that I can feel secure in what I put out. For Cyberlama, I have read a bunch of books about the current Dalai Lama. In my reading, I feel like I've gathered information about Dalai Lamas in general and the current Dalai Lama specifically. As a result, I feel more confident in my creation of a fictional DL who still participates in the customs but has a different personality. I'm rambling.

  11. This is all one reason why "write what you know" is rubbish advice. I always say "write what you care about" or "write what interests you." When I do research I always stumble across the most bizarre true stories I want to include in my fiction. When I write about things I know really well, I never think about the oddball facts, or the exceptions to rules and so my writing is less colorful.

    I'm already collecting research materials for my next book. "A Practial Course in Wooden Boat and Ship Building" is one title with which I'll be familiarizing myself.

  12. The important part of being the writer is knowing what's behind the scenes. Even if you don't include those details in the final, finished novel, you need to know them so your entire world has that feeling of depth. And knowing what horrors the Congo suffers daily will change your tone of writing. That, too, is important and respectful of their experiences. I can tell you from my perspective, if a book is compelling, I will read up on the location (or other facts) after I've finished the story, too!


  13. Scott, this is fascinating. I've read a bit about the DR Congo, but didn't realize it was that hellish. Wow. Africa isn't in the news nearly as much as it should be, either. We always hear about celebrities instead. Go figure.

    I think you're going about all of this in the way I go about it. I do insane amounts of research for my novels, but only a smidgen of what I learn goes into them. I could tell you all sorts of crap about the CIA that would make you go...oh, wow...but I didn't put it in Monarch if it didn't fit. I think - and I don't know how to word this the right way - but the more research you do and the more informed you are on the subject, the more it seems the book has an authenticity about it that others with less research do not. The Last Guest has that authenticity about it - at least from what I've read so far. That's what I adore about your work, by the way.

  14. ---
    Since 1995 or so, more people have died as a result of warfare in DR Congo than died in World War II. No lie.

    Scott, you may want to check this. WW2 was ~50-60 million, and the Congo Wars are about 5.4 million, according to the 'official number', which itself is likely high...probably closer to 3 million.

  15. I have reviewed a few historical novels and I have to say I’ve been impressed by the amount of research that the authors put in, much of which they freely admit never finds its way onto the page. When I wrote Milligan and Murphy I decided it was set in a fictional Ireland circa 1938 even though I never once mention either of those facts. I read a great deal about that time to get a feel for the place and I have to say that you can get caught up in the research to the detriment of the actual writing if you’re not careful; I even went to Dublin to see what it was like and found it full of Continentals. In the book I make mention of a maple leaf at one point but, on checking, I discovered that maples are rare in Ireland and so changed it to alder. Would anyone have noticed other than the odd botanist? Unlikely, but it pleased me to get it right. The language was harder and I chose there to give a flavour of it without trying to be obsessive. A few things had to go though. There are no yeses and nos in Irish, and so when Irish-speakers learn English they’re more likely to say, “I do,” or, “I do not,” rather than a simple yes or no. I’m not marketing my novel as historical fiction though. I think when people see that on the back cover they expect historical accuracy and I know some get a kick out of seeing where they can trip the author up; it takes all sorts of reader, I guess.

  16. No matter what the excuse, authorial laziness, impatience and ego will inevitably show through in the writing. At the expense of the story, imo.

  17. BK: You're right. I was not really thinking when I wrote that. What I meant to say is that the war in the DR Congo is an ongoing, bloody and horrific affair covering an area the size of Europe, and that almost nobody outside of Africa knows that there is a war going on there.

    Jim: Yeah, little things like what sort of tree grows where matter to me as a writer, and sometimes it's not as easy as you'd think to find the little factual details like that.

    Miss Sharp: No doubt that's true. I also think that most readers are lazy and happily read lazily-written books because most books are written by lazy writers. I will say that your comment seems a bit random. Are you saying that most historical fiction is badly written?

  18. BK: That's an interesting article you linked to. I especially like the line about how a lot of people would be dying there anyway because "basic living conditions in DR Congo were so tough." They are "tough" because of the destabilization brought about by the endless fighting, of course. The DRC has enough arable land to feed all of Africa, but the country must import the bulk of its food because it's not safe to farm or bring crops to market. There's a good article in the current National Geographic that touches on this. Also, relief workers on the ground from NGOs (not UN workers) say that the unreported violence in some areas outweighs the official numbers. But anyway, deforestation, foreign intervention to destabilize and depopulate large areas, rape and torture as crowd-control methods, starvation and disease: it sounds pretty nasty to me, even if it's only 3 or 4 million people.

    There is also a growing political pressure by European nations and China to have the UN forces withdraw because China, Germany and Belgium (as well as other nations like Uganda) are financing large mining and forestry operations in DR Congo, stripping the country of vast amounts of potential wealth and using local armed groups to clear Congolese citizens of the areas they want to forest/mine, using the war as a cover to murder and intimidate the folks who live where mining/forestry operations are planned. So I am suspicious of claims that minimize the severity of the violence in DR Congo, especially when those claims support calls to reduce UN presence. And stuff. I don't really want to talk about politics here.

  19. I intended my first book to be a kind of steampunk-ish Dickensian fairy tale so I did a fair amount of research for it. I wanted the story to have a realness to it, even though it's a fantasy novel for teens.

    My intention was not to recreate the era but to give an idea of how hard it was for young people back then, particularly young girls of limited means.

    I never really planned out what to put in and what to leave out. I just kinda absorbed it and later the details would bubble up from somewhere as I was writing.

    I have to say that researching the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century is one of the most distasteful things a person can do. It was absolutely heartbreaking and much, much worse than anything Dickens dreamed up.

  20. Cynthia: The casual daily brutality of the past always shocks me. I'm reading up on New York in the early 1900s and people lived in squalor, piled on top of each other. Of course, people live in terrifying conditions right now, too. I have such a nice, comfortable American life.

  21. Ashlee: I'm not sure how the tone of my writing has changed now that I'm writing about the DR Congo, but I'm sure it has. I have an inkling that I'm trying to focus more on beauty than I otherwise would, though some of that is admittedly simply in order to create effects through contrast. But the violence in the Congo isn't the point of the story so I'm still figuring out what to do with it, how to use it without making it gratuitious. Possibly this is making the tone of those sections more matter of fact. But that's nothing I want to focus on at this stage in the writing.

  22. Michelle: Thanks! And I think you're dead-on about authenticity. I keep hoping you'll blog about the secrets of the CIA, but you don't, darn you!

    You'll have to let me know what you think of Chapter 10 in The Last Guest. It took a huge amount of research to write that chapter, and in revisions I ended up cutting about half of the historical details out when I noticed that the exposition was focusing the chapter on the wrong ideas. Which always seems to be the danger of including too much of my discoveries: the narrative is no longer about the characters.

  23. "Are you saying that most historical fiction is badly written?"

    From what I've seen lately, yes. Which is strange since research is easier than it's ever been. I don't think writers focus as well as they used to -- maybe that's true for all of society, readers included.

    But when I heard you say you feel impatient with research because you just want to get to the "humanity" it made me cringe. It's like wanting to skip the pie so you can get to the cream.


  24. Miss Sharp: That's an interesting misreading of what I actually wrote, so I can see why you'd in turn call me lazy and egotistic.

  25. I don't write historical fiction; but I spent about 3 months researching the events timeline of 9/11 because a portion of the novel takes place in 2001. I didn't feel right about not having some news snippets or conversation that involved the tragedy.

    I learned a lot about 9/11 - even though I lived during the era. But I couldn't put as much about it as I wanted to; I only put in what related to my characters - how it affected their lives.

    People laughed at me for putting in so much research time for such a small amount of text. But I believe I researched as much as I needed to in order to write authentically about the era.

    I'm sure you've done the same thing Scott. You've put in what aspects of the conflict are relevant to THIS story. Even when the research material resonates with you as a person.

    However, if the issues remain with you after you finish this story, you can write a story that depicts the tragedy of DR Congo. At least you have the required research.

  26. Donna: Yes, that's it exactly. I'm trying to put into the novel what's important in this particular story.

    Maybe I could write more about DR Congo after this book, but I think I'd rather read Congolese writers like Amba Bongo, Mwema Ndungo or Frederick Yamusangie.

    Barbara Kingsolver touched on the Congolese war in Poisonwood Bible but the politics stayed mostly in the background and she focused on the characters. I don't recall Ms Kingsolver being accused of laziness, impatience and egotism because she wrote a novel and not a history book.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.