Questions about researching a novel
March 31, 2011 3:58 PM   Subscribe

What interesting questions would you ask of a panel of writers on the subject of researching a novel?

I'm moderating a panel of mystery/crime writers next month and they'll be talking about how they researched their books. I need to come up with some interesting questions that'll spark some cool discussions. What comes to your mind?
posted by storybored to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I might ask about if they had any formal writing training. I'm always interested in the "I wanted to write a book" person versus "i studied writing books" people.

Also would ask about process. Do they formulate a book in pieces in seam it together or do they start on page 1 and write to page 100.
posted by straight_razor at 4:11 PM on March 31, 2011

Best answer: Speaking as a writer who has tended to over-research (particularly historical topics) until it sometimes kills my interest/spark in the subject, I would ask them how they know when it's time to stop researching.
posted by scody at 4:11 PM on March 31, 2011 [7 favorites]

(also, will this panel be recorded or blogged anywhere? It sounds interesting -- I'd love to hear how it goes!)
posted by scody at 4:13 PM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I came in to suggest scody's question. You might also ask if they have any stories about times their research really surprised them, or times when they later discovered an error had ended up a published work and how they felt about that and dealt with it. Or, times when they deliberately did something in a novel that they knew was "wrong"--deviating from the real historical timeline, say, or giving a character access to knowledge or technology that was actually a couple of years away, or putting a real person in a location at a certain time when there are records they were actually elsewhere--and why they did that, and whether readers or reviewers noticed or criticized it.
posted by not that girl at 5:27 PM on March 31, 2011

Best answer: I'd like ask them about talking to law enforcement people, visits, ridealongs etc.

Could I just walk into my local police station and ask to talk to a detective about solving murders, or ask for a ride in a patrol car? What kind of bona fides do they need? References?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 7:21 PM on March 31, 2011

Response by poster: @scody - we didn't have any plans to record it but i'll be taking notes and hope to post the answers to some of the questions raised in this thread!
posted by storybored at 10:10 AM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Had the panel last nite, it went quite well and I managed to bring up most of the questions you guys suggested.

@straightrazor - i can answer this one myself. Of the dozen or so authors i've spoken to and read about, I can tell you that they come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Many of them don't have formal writing training. Most of the fiction writers i came across are self-taught with the help of various seminars and courses. Almost all have had the support of critique groups and reader reviewers/editors. With respect to process, there are two major camps - one prefers to work out an outline of a novel beforehand and then flesh out the frame so to speak. The other begins with a vision of a character(s), a setting or situation and then work from the bottom up. IOW, they don't know where the story is going until they've finished the first or second drafts. There are also writers who use a mix of these two approaches.

@scody - the answers from the authors to your question about when to stop researching were somewhat subjective. Sort of like Abe Lincoln's answer to the question about how long a man's legs should be -- long enough to reach the ground. They agreed that research should serve the story not vice versa, so when the story is adequately fleshed out, the research phase ends.
posted by storybored at 7:51 PM on April 14, 2011

Response by poster: @not that girl

Times that an author deliberately did something in a novel that was wrong. Yes, one of the authors did this on purpose. He had a mystery novel set in post-WWII Newfoundland (1947) and had as a supporting character, a black American soldier at one of the military bases in order to bring in a racism theme. However because of the segregation laws at the time, there were no blacks serving out of Nfld. This literary license was indeed noticed by one reviewer, though fortunately he was charitable enough to say that the author " had good reason to do it".

Surprising results of research: The same author in his first draft had his Newfoundland detective drive around in a squad car. One of his editors pointed out that Newfoundland constabulary was so budget-constrained in 1947 that they had no squad cars. This factoid ended up having a major impact on the book. The author decided that the detective would drive around in a sporty car (instead of having to rely on a taxi, which is apparently what the real Nfld policemen did back in those days). But this in turn meant that the detective had to have had some source of wealth other than his low-paying law enforcement job. The author ended up making the detective character a former rum-runner!
posted by storybored at 8:05 PM on April 14, 2011

Response by poster: @AmbroseChapel - talking to a staff sergeant in the police dept you're interested in, can usually get you a contact that can answer your questions. Both of the authors did end up talking to law-enforcement types and they said this was a critical research step, which could not be easily replicated via Web googling. It helps to have some kind of a reference or established credential so they know you're serious and being nice of course, really helps.
posted by storybored at 8:09 PM on April 14, 2011

Response by poster: Other points: One interesting point that came up a couple of times was the interplay between research and the writing itself. The example of the squad car given above is pretty cool. Another author had a eureka moment talking to an RCMP cold case investigator. In a conversation, the investigator mentioned an unsolved missing plane incident, and the author quickly adopted that as a central element in her mystery novel.

Oh yes, @straightrazor, forgot to mention, the background of our author panel. One was a computer consultant with an undergrad in psychology. Another was a plant pathologist who became a parliamentary researcher. The third was a former schoolteacher now working for the Justice Department.
posted by storybored at 8:15 PM on April 14, 2011

Thanks for the update - sounds like a cool event!
posted by scody at 9:08 PM on April 14, 2011

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