Friday, April 05, 2013

Writing Fiction: What kind of research do novelists do?

I participated in a great event this past week sponsored by the venerable Denver daily, The Denver Post. Given the tag of  Writing Fiction: What kind of research do novelists do?, the program featured fellow writers Sandra Dallas and Mark Stevens, as well as yours truly, and moderator Vickie Makings. The response from the audience was very positive as each of the writers talked about our various techniques for digging into the details that are necessary to make a work of fiction ring true for the reader. I admit I learned a few things. I also enjoyed talking one-on-one with several members of the audience during the break and after the event. I was especially pleased that several long-term residents of Denver's North Side commented favorably about my remarks regarding the gentrification of the North Side (otherwise known as Highlands), which serves as the background to the escapades of Gus Corral, the protagonist in my latest novel, Desperado: A Mile High Noir.

For this week's post, I'm using my notes for my talk - this is not exactly the speech I gave Wednesday night but it served as the foundation for what I delivered.

The North Side - Scene of the Crime in Desperado


When I prepared for this evening's program, I decided that I first wanted to be sure that I understood the topic, so I looked up various definitions of the word "research." I did some research on the word "research." One thing I learned is that the English word comes from the French concept of "to go about seeking." I like that concept for a couple of reasons. One - that is how I see the overall ambition inherent in writing fiction – seeking the right character, the right twist in the plot, the prime conflict that will resonate with my readers. Second – the idea of a search promises a wide-ranging process that might include a visit to a library but just as easily could include observation of people at a coffee shop. So for me, I am here to talk about research as the search for information that I need to enhance the creative process of writing a story.

One thing to clarify at the beginning. I am a lawyer and I have been trained in the traditional methods of research. I do know how to dig into archived books and records to find a forgotten and arcane piece of information. And I've done that, and on occasion, I've used those methods to clarify or enhance a particular point in one of my books or stories. But the traditional idea of the almost archaeological hunt for minutiae is not what I am talking about tonight. Research for fiction, for me, is an entirely different animal. And, for the most part I also am not talking about using the Internet for this kind of research, although if I have time at the end I will describe a few examples of when Internet research helped me with my fiction.

Onward. A basic question, Why do any research? Remember, I write fiction and so, by definition, everything I write is a lie. Research would seem to be a luxury. The people, places, and stories I create exist only in my imagination. I can say anything and because it is my creation, no one can dispute it. However, I have to confront one irrefutable fact – I want people to read what I write and, facing up to cold reality, my world of lies is not necessarily a world that others – readers – want to visit.

What is required, then, to get a reader to read one of my books?

I am a reader and I think I know what it takes for me to initially want to read someone's book or story. Several factors for this may be obvious. For one, I may appreciate the talent and art of the particular writer. The writer's reputation may sell me the book, or a recommendation from another reader might do the same, or the writer is someone I've read and enjoyed already. Or, maybe it is that I am attracted to the setting, characters, or basic plot core that I become aware of before I buy the book. Or maybe it just comes down to the fact that I want to give the particular writer a chance to overwhelm me. But one thing I also understand is that after I start a book, there has to be more than the writer's clever "way with words." There has to be more than grammatical expertise, more than a creative conceit, more than an original idea.

One question, among many others, that I will ask myself as I read is: Does the writer maintain the sense of place that I think is so important? For example, I was transported to the llano of New Mexico in the 1940s when I read Rudolfo Anaya's masterpiece, Bless Me, Ultima. I experience a similar sensation of visiting another place and time when I read the Sicilian crime novels of Andrea Camilleri. The result is that I read most anything Anaya writes, and I quickly scarf up the latest Camilleri as soon as it is translated.

Another of my internal questions relates to dialog and the ways the characters express themselves and move the story forward. Are these characters talking like real people or stereotypes? Do they use words they would actually know? On the other hand, are they unique, enough so that the reader cares what happens to them even if they are not the heroes or heroines of the story?

One more question to ask while reading – does the action fit in with the characters and storyline? Not whether the action is realistic, because good fiction only has to take something not real and turn it into something real enough. I don't do literary photographs – if anything I'm an impressionist.

At its heart, my concerns here are the attention to detail by the author. Details are obtained in a variety of ways by writers, and it is this gathering of details, this search for authenticity, that I think amounts to research.

Although calling what I do "research" makes it more formal and scientific than it really is, I have to say that my research process amounts to a few basic aspects of engaging in life. First, I must observe. Second, I must listen. Third, I must understand. And if that is still not enough, there is always the Internet.

So what does it mean "to observe?"

Gore Vidal said that "the real writer learns nothing from life – the writer is more like an oyster or sponge who takes it all in and then does something with it in his mind. And that creates art."

And Hemingway said: "If a writer stops observing he is finished. But the writer does not have to observe consciously nor think how it will be useful. Everything he sees goes into the great reserve of things he knows or has seen."

Although observation may change the phenomenon, one aspect of my observation is to not engage. This type of research is similar to what ants and other animals and insects do all summer – they pile up food and supplies, without really knowing why or what exactly is being collected, because when winter hits, they will call on their storage to survive. In a similar manner, I hoard the details of life.

It works for me like this: Let's say I visit a local high school and notice the swagger in a teen-aged boy's walk; or I take a stroll and feel the cool breeze off Sloan's lake on a warm spring afternoon; or I smell the whiff of soap coming off the early morning runner who rushes by me as I water my front lawn. All these details are stored away for future use. Nothing too conscious about that but it is essential for me as a writer that I have this capacity to store away details of existence for future use.

More examples from my latest book, Desperado. The setting for the book is the neighborhood where my wife and I have lived for more than thirty years. We have always known the area as the North Side. Today, it's notorious as Highlands. In fact, where we live is called, by some, LoHi, or Lower Highlands. I walk and run through these streets almost daily, even in winter weather. I know some of my neighbors, talk with them about their kids, dreams, sometimes their worries. I've visited some of their homes, and a few have joined us in our back yard. Am I too much of an opportunist to say that, in addition to just being part of my everyday existence, all of that interaction also was research for my book? The changes happening in my neighborhood are massive, and as a writer I knew I had to write about the changes, I had to include the ebbs and flows of gentrification in my book. And the reason I came to that conclusion was because what is happening is a very human experience that affects the lives of many different people in different ways. So as a writer I have observed the changes – the demolition of single family housing in favor of massive apartment and condo complexes; more people, traffic and congestion; new and expensive restaurants and bars; increases in the cost of living, from property taxes to a combination plate at Rosa Linda's. In one way or another, this research of my own community made its way into the book – sometimes directly, more often in subtle ways or even just as unsaid background for what was happening in my story.

The next step from observation is to listen. Listening implies that I am quiet. Many would say I am too quiet. However, in my defense, when I am not engaged in the conversation it's not necessarily because I find it uninteresting or that I don't have anything to say (although it could be either of those) – but maybe I am just researching. This listening part is right up my alley. It helps to answer questions like: who talks when, and who responds? How are decisions made and conflicts resolved with words?

I want to hear the tone and vibrancy of the agitated young woman as she tears down her best friend on the cell phone. I wait for the slang and the timing of the curse words. When does she pause for effect? When does she lose it completely? Or, I take in the conversation at the booth next to me in the latest new restaurant on 32nd Avenue; I might even scribble a note or two. This is all research. Some might call it eavesdropping. And I can't really argue with that, but it's done without malicious intent.

My last research tactic that I'll talk about is the one labeled "understanding." Since understanding is one of the most difficult of human endeavors, this part of research requires the most attention. While listening and observing can be done unconsciously and without an agenda, understanding requires affirmative steps. How does the particular detail fit in with the character at the particular point in the story where I think I need that detail? Let's say that I am in the middle of a chapter and I recall the teen-aged swagger that I stored from my visit to the high school and know that I should use it in my book – but does the swagger mean that the boy is proud and boastful or is he compensating out of fear or regret? I have to make a conclusion about the boy and the detail. And to do that, I have to be fair to the actual boy, to my fictional character, and to my story. Let me be clear, though. The fact that I understand the detail and what it means to my character does not mean that I will use the understanding or even the detail. But having that knowledge helps me craft my characters so that readers can recognize something about that character, something human and maybe universal. It may well all go unsaid, but the research is not wasted.

At that point, research stops and the imagination once again takes over. The writing continues.


Internet research – using the web for music, poems, quotes, old news stories. To verify a date, or a name, or an incident. Also, use Google for "looking" at a street or house or other view.

Manuel Ramos - Desperado: A Mile High Noir 

Tattered Cover Book Store

Apr 11 2013 7:30 pm
Colfax Avenue: Award-winning Denver writer and attorney Manuel Ramos is the Director of Advocacy for Colorado Legal Services, the statewide legal aid program, and the author of eight published novels, five of which feature Denver lawyer Luis Móntez. Ramos will read from and sign his new novel Desperado: A Mile High Noir ($17.95 Arte Publico), a gripping murder mystery, based in Denver, that twists and turns like a roller coaster, where the outlook is grim and there’s no honor among thieves.
Can’t make it to the signing? Request an autographed copy here:
Manuel Ramos’s website

  That's it for this week - hope to see some of you at the Tattered Cover next week. Until then, Later.


Mario Acevedo said...

You gave a great talk. Thanks.

Manuel Ramos said...

Thank you,Mario - I thought it was a pretty good evening all around. Thanks for attending.

Carmen Amato said...

Kudos on recognizing the importance of consistency when a location is critical to a novel. Can a writer place the reader there, are there plot elements that otherwise could not exist in the location, do the characters maintain a location-worthy point of view and speech patterns? I agree that when an author can do this well, readers become fans. a WELL CONSTRUCTED POST--THANKS

Manuel Ramos said...

Thank you, Carmen. And wishing you the best with your writing.

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