25th Trillium Award


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The Search for Truth

With Peter Behrens, Christy Ann Conlin, Heather J. Wood, Frieda Wishinsky, Maureen Fergus, Hal Niedzviecki, Karin Lowachee and Allison Winn Scotch.

As we continue our exploration of the mechanics of writing fiction, this month on Fiction Craft, eight authors answer the question: How do you approach research for your fiction?

I want to answer this question by telling you how I don’t approach research. One of the tricks writers sometimes use to procrastinate is to get hung up on research. The thinking runs something like this: “I can’t possibly write a story about someone from the world of dressage until I have researched all there is to know about dressage.” From there, they immerse themselves in research and all work on the fiction stops. It’s self-sabotage. Years ago, I read an interview with a British author (can’t remember her name, sorry) who said she did all of her research after the first draft of a novel was completed. It was a “light bulb” moment for me. In fiction, after all, you are just making it all up, or most of it. Not to be cavalier about the importance of veracity, but often you will not even know what it is that you need to know about a subject until you’ve written the story. Yes, I do a small amount of research before writing, just to get my footing, but only afterwards do I do the nitty-gritty stuff that brings texture, depth and a feeling of reality to the scenarios I’ve created. This is a kind of fill-in-the-blanks approach to research, and I find that it is marvelous for moving the research barrier out of the way, allowing me to get on with the writing.

So, if you find that you can’t describe what the interior of a horse barn looks like, don’t put the writing aside until you can get to a horse barn. Rather, just fake it for the moment, imagine a horse barn, make one up so that you can keep going on your story. When you are done, you will know how much you really need to know about the interior of that barn.

Of course, that’s just one way to approach research when writing fiction. Other writers, as you’ll see below, have other methods that work equally well for them.


PETER BEHRENS is the author of the novels The O’Briens and The Law of Dreams, as well as the collection of short fiction, Night Driving. He lives in Maine and Texas.

Both my novels – The Law of Dreams and The O’Briens – are set in the past. Law takes place during the Irish Famine; The O’Briens happens all over North American during the first half of the 20th century. I began both novels with a solid basis of knowledge concerning the worlds in which they were set. I’ve been a lifelong student of Irish history, and had a context to begin researching the Famine in some depth. I read everything I could on the subject, and made a number of trips to Ireland. I visited places like the national library, and the Famine Museum in Co. Roscommon. I walked the ground – the hills and roads-where my characters walked. I smelled the earth they lived on and smelled the peat fires. I met with Irish scholars – historians, geographers, economists, writers – who had studied and written about the Famine.

The basic procedure I follow is: a) write to a point where I am stopped by something essential that I don’t know; b) do the research necessary to find out whatever it is; c) keep on writing.

I had already done a lot of the research for The O’Briens, before I began writing the novel. The main character is based on my grandfather, and years before I’d researched his life and times, without knowing I would use the material in a novel. I learned a lot about power and money in Canada in the first half of the 19th century; about the railway boom before WWI; about life and death during both the two world wars.

Google has made a big difference. To learn about context and acquire a depth of understanding, you must read the books. But for quick access to specific bits of information, Google is unbeatable. I wasn’t using Google while writing Law, and if I wanted to find out, say, what type of musket a British soldier in Ireland carried in 1847, I had to make a trip to the UCLA library, find the right book (or more likely, get an interlibrary loan) and dig out the tidbit I needed from a mass of irrelevant material.

But by the time I wrote The O’Briens, I was a googler. One of the characters is a photographer. If I needed to know (e.g.) what sort of camera a professional photographer might use in 1914, I’d google “cameras 1914” and fish up more information, more detailed information, that I could possibly use. Google is essential, a real time-save – but you still must read the books to gain the broadest deepest knowledge of your subject.


CHRISTY ANN CONLIN is the author of the novels Dead Time, Listening For the Island and Heave. She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

In the early days I drew on what I already knew, my previous life experiences. Mind you, none of this was intentionally “experienced” for writing as it hadn’t even occurred to me to write yet – I just thrived on living large. And by living large I mean (if I don’t sound like a pretentious idiot) being a connoisseur of the human heart. I suppose, ultimately, it was these life experiences that made me want to be a writer. And so I mined them, and found a story and the literary landscape for my first novel, Heave. And let’s note that drawing on autobiographical aspects is not autobiography. The story is made up, inspired perhaps from real life, but completely fictional. I think this is very common for new writers, to draw on their own lives. One of the smartest things I learned when I did a MFA was to know intimately what you write about or not bother writing.

Right now I’m researching a book on a teenage mercenary in a futuristic world whose mother is a narcoleptic and father is a special forces guy. I’ve been wondering what the hell I was thinking as it’s so time consuming. I don’t have firsthand knowledge of these things so I found a generous narcoleptic who shared her whole life with me. And then I found a generous special forces guy and that’s been absolutely fascinating chatting about guns and knives and being covert and how all that blends and impacts on real life and kids. I also took up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu because I couldn’t compellingly write about martial arts without knowing it experientially; I couldn’t endow the character with it. The interesting through line here is that I had very stereotypical ideas that fell to pieces when I started researching. It’s very humbling realizing how enmeshed you are in stereotypes and clichés.

I’m also just finishing Listening for the Island, a novel that links to my first novel, Heave. It’s a ghost story and the research was mixed, drawing on childhood memories of ghosts, time in old graveyards, researching Japanese ghost legends, a trip to Asia, learning about poisonous flowers, experimenting with old fashioned lemonade recipes, exploring abandoned estates.

Technique? Finish the research and then write. At that stage, it’s like being possessed by the knowledge AND the story and characters. It integrates. I can’t “research-as-I-go”. They are discrete stages, research and writing. Sometimes I stop and do more research, if I find that I’m “faking it” cause that’s when the writing becomes inauthentic. The factual and emotional honesty of a story are intrinsically linked. I think as you do research, the creative part of the brain forms the story, putting flesh on the bones, so to speak. And knowing the detail so perfectly, so precisely, makes the story and characters animate. What was lifeless breathes. And that’s the magic every writer lusts after – when you tip into a story that has become tangible and layered and complex...alive.


HEATHER J. WOOD is the author of the novels Roll With It and Fortune Cookie. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.

My first book, Fortune Cookie, was essentially over-researched. I knew I wanted to write a novel involving the year 1989, although when I began my investigations, Fortune Cookie had not yet taken shape in my mind. I spent over five years collecting old magazines and newspaper articles from the time. Later, I clicked on almost every “This Date in History” link on the Internet and became obsessed with 1980’s tribute sites.

I actually became weighed down by the factoids and minutia that I had accumulated. Early drafts of the book were littered with unnecessary references to minor 1989 pop-culture events. Then one day, I attended a lunch time lecture by Catherine Bush on researching one’s novel. She essentially said that it was only necessary to do enough research to create believability. Her lecture help to free me from I what now call “the research trap.” I eventually let go of the majority of my 1989 facts and figures and used just a fraction of my 1980’s data in Fortune Cookie’s fictional 1989.

My recently released second book, Roll With It, is about a young woman, Neddy, who takes up roller derby – a sport I knew little about. I went to several local bouts in Toronto, both at The Hangar and the Ted Reeve Arena. I also attended a GTA Rollergirls practice session. In addition, I visited a number of roller derby fan sites. But having learned my lesson the first time around, I stopped researching fairly early on in the writing process and let Roll With It develop in its own narrative universe.


FRIEDA WISHINSKY is the author of numerous books for young people, including The Canadian Flyer Series, Maggie Can’t Wait and Oonga Boonga. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.

Whether I'm writing fiction or non-fiction for kids, I have a similar approach. I ask myself what engaged me about the subject, theme, time or setting I'll be exploring in my book. I want to communicate that fascination to my reader. The details I discover through research will complement my story but I hope never overwhelm it. In the end the story and characters must shine through.

My next step is to find basic information to help give me a sense of time, place, setting, issues, etc.... The first place I head for that is to kids books (both fiction and non-fiction) related to the subject. I find that they break down information to its essentials and zero-in on main themes.

Now I'm ready to write an outline, research some more and fill in details using adult novels, non-fiction and the Internet. I also speak, if possible, to experts and try visiting places linked to my subject.

I realize that many authors do all their research before they write a word of text. Not me. I like the back and forth of writing and researching. After all, I never know for sure which questions will arise and need answering until I'm writing the book. And sometimes I find that my story takes me in an unexpected new direction and so will my research.


MAUREEN FERGUS is the author of the novels Ortega, Recipe for Disaster, and Exploits of a Reluctant (But Extremely Goodlooking) Hero. She lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Sometimes, if the book is more focused on everyday life and the universal trials and tribulations of childhood and adolescence, I do almost no research at all. However, when I wrote Ortega (a story about a talking gorilla raised in a laboratory) I did extensive research. Some of it was strictly fact-based (eg. How big is an adolescent gorilla? What does a gorilla eat?) but most of it was general reading to get a feel for gorillas. Far more than facts, it was this innate sense of “gorilla-ness” that eventually helped bring my protagonist to life. My reading in this regard ranged from scientific/documentary (The Education of Koko, Gorillas in the Mist, various National Geographic articles) to non-fiction written for kids. Studying the accompanying photographs was also important in this instance because it often evoked a powerful emotional response in me – key to being able to write with heart.


HAL NIEDZVIECKI is the author of numerous novels including Look Down, This Is Where It Must have Happened; The Program; Ditch and Lurvy. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.

The title story of my new short story collection was published in Toronto Life, way back when. During the course of the publishing process I was rung up by a fact-checker who asked me about, among other things, the section of the story that involves a riff on phone services. “Call waiting. Speed dial. Three way conference. Note pad dialling,” blurt a series of deliberately fractured sentences. The young woman from Toronto Life wanted to know, in particular, about “note pad dialling.” “I made it up,” I told her. There was an awkward silence as she processed this. “You made it up?” she asked. “Yeah,” I said again, “I made it up.” A sound on the other end of the line, like a cross between a gulp and a sigh. “I mean,” I said, “I can do that right?” All of a sudden, I wasn’t so sure.

I take a haphazard, often circuitous journey when I write fiction. Sometimes that journey involves a pit stop or two for ‘research’. That research will usually happen when whatever I’m working on is half finished. I’ll stumble upon something I’ve written that will get me intrigued – does such a product exist, or did I just make it up? Am I remembering that song the way it actually sounds or did I invent a snare drum and an electric violin? At some point, I convince myself that I should probably resolve the question at hand. My inner fact-checker at work, I suppose. But then again, I say to myself, does it matter? After all, it’s not me who’s making stuff up, it’s my character. In their head, in their life, for whatever reason, they remember things a certain way. Very often, I track down the reference I made, find out I had it not-quite-right, but prefer to keep it as it is. “Note pad dialling” never existed. But I like the sound of it, like the poetry of its incongruity. Why change it? It’s fiction, right?

Another example: for a story in my new collection, called Prenatal (first published in Joyland.ca), I imagine a pregnant teen girl being harassed by her fetus. The fetus wants her to get an abortion. Fetus harangues the girl at inopportune times by producing a wide array of facts and figures regarding what a miserable life he/she is likely to have. To produce those facts and figures, I went online. But as the story rolled on and I wanted slightly more outlandish statistics, I ended up distorting the truth. I didn’t do anything too obvious – the reader is unlikely to be able to distinguish fact from fiction. I did what I did because I wanted the stats to escalate somewhat and fit into particular moments of the story.

I guess overall that’s my approach to research – I use it, very sparingly, as a tool to augment my imagination in as organic a way as possible. Since I’m not trying to assert a point of view in the conventional sense (abortion is killing your baby vs women have the right to chose) I don’t feel bound by fact. My goal is to grope toward a deeper truth. That truth – which is best described ­­as a collective sense of our own futility in the face of mortality ­– defies fact.


KARIN LOWACHEE is the author of numerous novels, including The Gaslight Dogs, Warchild, Burndive and Cagebird. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.

The short reply is "as thoroughly as I can." But there's always a danger of a writer spending so much time researching that they never actually apply it by writing. I tend to do a certain amount of research in advance of writing anything, in order to feel grounded in a world and its physical makeup. And then when I feel I have a sure enough foot to proceed, I write. Research doesn't stop through the process of a novel, though. There are always things to check or expand upon, and that takes research. So it's ongoing. The important second part to that thought, as well, is that the amount of research you do doesn't necessarily have to be bare-faced in the book. The writer should always know more than what they are generally putting on the page (because every single detail you learn about any topic doesn't need to make its way into a novel; only the pertinent details do). The evidence of your research shouldn't be an intrusion on the story, but part of the foundation of it. The nitty-gritty of research, for me, is look everywhere. Don't rely solely on one source - be it just the internet or just books or just experts. Try to get to primary sources for things, but reading opinion and deconstructive texts can be interesting as well, and push you to think of things in a different manner. And always remember that there will be someone out there who might read your work, eager to prove a detail wrong. So, again, be thorough. It isn't so much "write what you know" as "know what you write."


ALLISON WINN SCOTCH is the author of the novels The One That I Want, Time of My Life and The Department of Lost & Found. She lives in New York.

My approach to research in my books really depends on the overall subject matter of the novel. For my first, The Department of Lost & Found, which dealt with cancer, I was very meticulous in my research – I worked with an oncologist and spoke with some breast cancer survivors to ensure that I got everything just right. It was my worst nightmare to get those details wrong, and I’m grateful that even years after publication, I’ve never once heard that. For my next two novels, Time of My Life and The One That I Want, I wouldn’t say that I did a ton of research, simply because – other than life’s observations and absorbing the complexities of human emotion – they didn’t require it. That said, when I say I didn’t so any research, I don’t mean that entirely. I think it’s critical to get facts right: geography, dates of actual events, circumstances surrounding actual events, pop culture references, etc.... If you’re erroneous on those, you lose your reader. They stop and think, “What? Bruce Springsteen so did not have a hit single in 2007,” or whatever, and you lose credibility. But from there, I think you’re free to take a lot of creative license. That is, after all, why they call it fiction.

And I suppose I blended a mix of these two methods with my upcoming book, The Song Remains the Same, coming out in 2012, which deals with a woman who loses her memory. My father is a neurosurgeon, so I was able to tap into his expertise on the brain and the mind, and I tried – without getting overly medical and bogged down in details such that I bored readers – to lend believability to a rare, albeit actual real-life, circumstance. But after I established that, I let my imagination take over. I tend to write at a rather frantic pace when I’m in the thick of a manuscript, so I find that stopping to research can really impede me. So my tip: research all of the fact-based items ahead of time, and then let it fly.

So, all in all, my theory is that you research anything that can be verified, anything that a reader can point to and say, “Well, that’s not right,” but from there, you have license to go wherever you need to. It is fiction, after all.


Past editions of Fiction Craft

June 2011: How do you make your characters come alive?

May 2011: Where do your stories come from?

April 2011: How do you name your characters?


Shaun Smith is the author of the YA novel Snakes & Ladders. and the e-book Magical Narcissism. He has published journalism with CBC.ca, Quill & Quire, The Toronto Star and numerous other outlets. His book blog "Shaun Smith's Sunday Sundries" appears each Sunday (no kidding!) on Open Book Toronto.

Follow Shaun on Twitter.

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