The power of research

Well I finished the last book I’ll be reading for Peace With Honor, a short work called Why the Vietcong Fought. It got me thinking about how useful research is to my writing.
In the first place, it stops me from making stupid mistakes.
Second, it gives me ideas, facts, turning points or details I can incorporate into my story. That doesn’t always work—I don’t think the Massachusetts convention ratifying the Constitution will play into the plot of Not By Honor Bound after all—but it propels a draft along and gives me more to work with on the next draft.
In the case of Peace With Honor, when I started the story, I had some ideas about Vietnam, but my reading fleshed out lots of details. The intense heat of the jungle country. The cadres, Vietnamese officers who helped keep the grunts focused on the mission. The politics back in the US (a lot of which got cut on the last draft but it helped me shape things up).
Third, it gives me confidence. I know I’m not an expert on ‘nam, and I may well have made errors, but instead of grappling with a vague, generic third-world country, I have a sense I’m working with a story drawn (partly anyway) from reality. It’s like the difference between idly thinking about cooking and having a specific recipe in mind (that’s not a perfect analogy but it’ll have to do).
The downside? It’s easy to suck up a lot of time doing research, often more research than necessary. And it’s always tempting (as many writers before me have observed) to throw something into your story just because it’s sooo cool and interesting. This is a temptation to avoid: The goal is to enhance the story, not show off your own cleverness. One reason I trimmed back the politics is because I felt all the opening talky scenes would be much more intriguing to me than the reader. Now we have one scene in Washington, with Nixon, and it works better.

1 Comment

Filed under Short Stories, Story Problems, Writing

One response to “The power of research

  1. Pingback: Keeping it Real | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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