Want to take your writing craft to the next level? This brilliant Pocket Guide from Saeida Rouass will encourage you to delve deeper into the world of research to apply new techniques to your creative project. Read on for more…
The conflict of writing is that while it is a solitary task, you are never truly alone. Your reader paces behind you, waiting to be seen and anticipating the tale you hope to weave for them. While you may choose to ignore them for as long as you need to, at some point you will have to pull up a chair and invite them to sit down. Ultimately you are not just writing for yourself, you are also writing to be read.
Acknowledging that your reader is always present, a ghostly figure lurking somewhere in the background, can be liberating. Because once you know they are there, you can turn your attention to what it is you want to give them.
Ask yourself: what is the experience I want the reader to have as they turn the pages of my story? Spending some time listing the feelings you want them to have can help in shaping an authentic emotional experience for them. I want them to be uncomfortable, challenged, excited, horrified, hopeful and moved. I want so much for them.
Once you have a sense of the emotional journey you want to take your reader on or the moment you want to put them in, you then have to turn your attention to a more practical question. How am I going to create this complex and diverse emotional experience for them?
There are an infinite number of considerations a writer has to process to put and keep their reader in the moment. Prose, structure, characterisation, plot and pace all come into play. Research sits behind them all. The stuff you do when you are not actually writing. The rabbit holes you find yourself down in the dead of the night, and the details you seek to verify over and over are critical to drawing your reader into a world of your own creation and convincing them its real, that what they feel is real. All those hours of research may never actually make it to the page in a concrete way, but they are hugely important to your reader’s experience. In my novel Assembly of the Dead there is a line: “But, the sugar trade was suffering from malicious rumours.” It took me two days to write that line. Well two days of research into the sugar trade in Morocco at the turn of the 20th century and about twenty seconds to write it. It was worth it because that one line set a historical context and a tension for a character.
So, research is an integral part of the writing process that is never complete. It is one of the many things that will make the world you write feel real for the reader and for you. The thought can be daunting but keeping in mind a few guiding principals can help stop it from overwhelming you.
Recognise that Everything You Encounter Has Already Been Curated.
In his work on the Haitian revolution, Michel-Rolph Trouillot argued silences enter the historical production process at three points: the moment of fact creation (making of archives), the moment of fact retrieval (making of narrative) and the moment of retrospective significance (making of history in the final instance).
Whether you are mining archives in a library, searching the Internet for photographs, listening to audio material, watching people interact at a dinner party whatever bit of research you are doing it’s important to recognise that everything you encounter has already been curated by someone else. Your object of interest is a product of other people’s choices, conscious or otherwise, what they chose to include and exclude.
Research is not about arriving at some objective truth, it is about interrogating a thing, person, or moment to find its relevance to your truth. Knowing this opens the door to your own interpretation of the fact when telling your story because you can dig for the stuff that others thought not worthy of inclusion, the silences Trouillot mentions. That does not mean you should disregard the facts. Distorting simple facts to fit your narrative can destroy your reader’s belief in your story.
Pay Attention To Detail, But Don’t Get Lost in it
Detail makes your story real. It adds an authenticity that can be sublime for the reader and in some ways shows them that you see them, you know they are smart and they appreciate the effort you have gone to. Suppose you want to write a scene of a family at home around a dinner table in late February 1986 London. What establishes the 1986 of this scene? You have to ask yourself a set of questions. What would this family most likely eat for dinner in 1986? What would they be wearing? Is the radio playing and if so what song? How is their home decorated? What’s the weather like outside? What were the social tensions of 1986 London? It’s all research and it’s important.
But, there is a risk you lose yourself in the detail or want to include all of it because you just love it so much. Put the pen down, step away from the laptop. Curate! Make choices, include and exclude according to what moves your story forward be it in plot, character realisation or context. If it doesn’t matter to anyone in your story that Whitney Houston was at number one with ‘How Will I Know’ in February 1986, then I’m sorry, I love you Whitney, but you have to go. (Note: Whitney will always be important.)
Ask Yourself: Would This Fly with the Experts?
While I was writing my novel set in Morocco in 1906 I kept asking myself what would an expert of Morocco at the turn of the 20th century think? Would this scene fly with them? If it will fly with them, it will fly with a general reader. If you are writing a scene of a brain surgeon performing brain surgery, an actual brain surgeon should read it and think “Yep, that is what I do in my job.” It’s a standard to set for yourself when writing. When you set the bar high for accuracy the details you include add a realness that can be appreciated by both the overly informed and completely oblivious reader. If what the characters are doing is not realistic in the world you created, the reader’s vicarious experience will likely be inauthentic.
Keep the Information Organised
Finally, keep the information you collect from your research organised and easily accessible. It just makes life easier and retrieval of that information less painful. Store it in a safe place in an organised fashion be it chronologically, by theme, by significance to character – whatever works for you. Trust me, looking for a piece of information and not being able to find it on your overpopulated desktop can break the spell you find yourself in when lost in writing. By keeping the information organised you minimise the interruptions. That includes details you may have discarded in first draft. Don’t throw any of it away because you might desperately need it later.
For further reading on this topic, I recommend:
Hilary Mantel’s The Reith Lectures is a great audio resource to explore research for historical fiction. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08tcbrp
These fictional works do a brilliant job of balancing research with storytelling: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver offers powerful insight into how themes of colonialism, patriarchy and European attitudes towards Africa can shape and be represented in character. The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami offers an interesting fictionalisation of historical silences.
The American period crime television series Broadwalk Empire is a great example of how research reaches into every part of narrative creation.
And finally, here’s my top research tip: Academic journal articles on the theme you are writing about are a great resource to interrogate the deeper questions your story is exploring.
Saeida Rouass is the writer of Assembly of the Dead, a historical detective novel set in Marrakesh in 1906 and inspired by the true story of the ‘Moorish Jack the Ripper.’ She is also the author of Eighteen Days of Spring in Winter and has contributed to the anthology The Ordinary Chaos of Being Human – Tales of Many Muslim Worlds (2019) and We Wrote in Symbols; Love and Erotica by Arab Women (2021). She has been published by the Independent, Newsweek, Skin Deep and Wasafari Magazine and is currently working on the sequel to Assembly of the Dead.
Published 13 January 2021