Facts and Fiction

I recently ran into a fiction writer who had spent a couple of months in Zimbabwe. She had travelled from San Francisco to Zimbabwe to get her facts straight before starting work on her new novel. Even if she had found tons of reference material in libraries and archives, she considered it essential to pack her bags and go to Zimbabwe and experience the place firsthand. I congratulated her on her dedication. She thanked me with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. I was taken aback. Had I offended her in some way? It turned out that she was not reacting badly to my praise. She was worried about all the research she had done so far: tomes of printed material she had waded through, facts she had collected and cataloged, chats she had had with locals, formal interviews she had conducted with government officials. “If there is such a thing as too much research, I think I am guilty of it,” she said. “Now I am worried that the deadweight of facts will crush my fiction.”

She is right; research can be a double-edged sword. Too little of it and you are left with sketchy facts and errors that weaken your plot’s credibility. Irate readers will write into you to ask why you didn’t spend enough time checking your facts and doing thorough background research before you sat down at your desk and started punching the keys. If your story is set in an 18th-century monastery in Europe or a far-flung tribal settlement in 20th century Egypt, it is important to get the geographical and cultural details about these settings right when you weave the strands of your plot together. These details are essential because they give your fictional world credibility. Once you’ve shared the critical facts with readers, you can spin any yarn you want and take your readers along with you on a flight of fantasy.

How much “fact finding” is too much though? Research can be a tricky rabbit hole to wander into. Once you make your way down it, there is the danger of you losing track of time and hoarding material that you may never use in your novel or story. The trick is to know when to stop. Don’t limit yourself to a couple of Google searches, but don’t go overboard and spend months and months of precious time on digging up factual information. Strike a sensible balance. Do targeted research so you are not bogged down by information overload. You know the demands of your story, so you are the best judge of how much background information it needs to evolve.

Weaving together the factual details you have gathered into your fictional narrative is an art that can be learnt only with practice. You don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot and slow down the pace of your narrative with tracts of research. It’s all very well to have gathered pages and pages of information about agrarian life in Russia, but they have no place in your narrative if they are getting in the way of the story and making impossible demands on your readers’ attention spans. Stick to the essentials and throw the rest of your research overboard. It is best to practise the Buddist tenet of detachment when it comes to your research material.

Some writers have mastered the art of making the best use of their research material in their fiction. Indian writer Amitav Ghosh comes to mind. Ghosh’s novels (Flood of Fire, River of Smoke, Sea of Poppies, The Glass Palace) are richly researched, and he seamlessly weaves in the information he collects into his fiction. Research adds an extra dimension and depth to the stories he tells, but it never sticks out or gets in the way of the stories he tells. Two-time Booker-winner Hilary Mantel is another fine example. Mantel’s historical fiction (Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies) is seeped in detail. Historical facts serve the narrative well and Mantel “draws the drama out of real life” to entertain and edify her readers with consummate skill.

There is no law to lay down on how much research you can do in preparation for your novel or story. The only guiding principle you need to follow is to remember to keep the big picture in mind and use the facts you gather to add depth to the story you intend to tell. Gather as many facts as you see fit. Just don’t let them get in the way of your story.