How To Love Researching Your Novel
Most of the time—to my surprise—I look forward to writing my weekly post for The Debutante Ball. This week, however, I dreaded it. This was for two reasons: first, last week’s post on the differences between the expectations and realities of publishing a novel completely drained me; and second, on today’s topic, I got nothing.
Well, almost nothing. We are supposed to be writing about research: how much we did, how much wound up in our novels, what sources we used. I did minimal, if any, research for The Queen of Hearts. I had no clue how to write a novel when I started writing it, and figuring out how to do that consumed 100% of my brainpower. (Note to self: next time, read some books on how to write a book before writing the book.) The lives and locations and jobs of the protagonists in the novel were not a stretch for me—they’re doctors and mothers, and they live in in places where I’ve lived. Actually now that I think about it, I did interview and seek feedback from a number of trauma surgeons and cardiologists, since neither of those is my specialty, but mainly I mined information from my life for the settings.
After I finished the revised draft of TQOH, I turned my attention to what I thought would be my next novel: a literary biotech thriller with a male venture capital protagonist. As you might surmise, this required a boatload of research but it’s not as daunting as it sounds. In 2008, as the economy crumbled, I became very curious about what the hell had happened: why did banks fail so spectacularly? What happened to the so-called safeguards?
I activated my superpower—reading—and dove into what would ultimately be dozens of books about the financial industry. The more I read, the more astonishing the whole thing became. (And the more obvious it became that this will happen again, given the magnificent and unchecked corruption of many of our political leaders.) But somewhere in there, I stumbled across an autobiography from some guy who’d been a trader in Asia back in the 90s and the germ of an idea blossomed. I combined the financial background of my new character with another topic that has long fascinated me: the massive societal upheaval in our future as a result of the digital revolution. I read dozens more books on the topic of the technological changes that will reconfigure nearly every aspect of human existence, and ultimately hit on a storyline combining the two that contained an explosive ending.
Here’s the thing: none of this felt like research. Or at least, none of it felt onerous. I devoured those books, ultimately irritating everyone around me since I couldn’t shut up about them. I started the manuscript with great enthusiasm, and I believe the early drafts were really good. As it turned out, however, my agent and my editor did not want a biotech/financial-themed book starring a dude. They wanted more women’s fiction.
The whole thing taught me something valuable: as an author, you have the blessing of selecting topics that interest you. (Whether or not your publisher accepts them is a different story.) Not all research is going to be a breeze but at least you can skew it toward things that don’t bore the living daylights out of you.
So for my next (publisher-approved) novel I’m writing about one of the minor characters from The Queen of Hearts: a woman named Georgia. There’s one line in TQOH about what happened to Georgia after medical school, and so I’m locked into her location (Charleston) and her specialty (urology.) I’ve been to Charleston, and I’m happy to report that as a research work trip, it does not suck. I have not been to a urologist, but I’m working on that. In the meantime, I’ve started some private Facebook groups to advise me: a Charleston group, a group of female urologists (badass!) and a group of rehab doctors (also badass!), which is one of the other characters’ specialities. I also have an informal group of gay dudes helping me out because the third main character is a gay male family medicine doc. Whenever I have questions, I crowdsource these groups, and many of them have offered to beta-read the first draft when it’s done. Facebook is an invaluable research tool when it comes to finding advisors.
So obviously my next research step will take place in Charleston, where I will frolic seaside, take in some of the historical sites, eat myself sick in one of the fabulous restaurants, and perhaps party at a gay bar. Anyone want to join me?