The Importance of Research

 In Blog

Although writing is seen as a creative process, good writing often involves research in order to support the work. The research component is much like the underpainting in a finished canvas – it is there, under the surface, and enhances the finished product in a way that is not entirely discernable. In writing, this can be referred to as ver·i·si·mil·i·tude.

Verisimilitude means that something has been given the sense of being true or real, as in the details give the novel verisimilitude. It is another way of saying that the writing is realistic and lifelike because the details are believable, plausible and credible. Verisimilitude lends credibility to the results of the creative process.

In order to create a text that resonates with the quality of being real, an author may engage in a lengthy research process. This may involve months spent in academic libraries, poring through voluminous tomes, or it may mean quick internet searches done from the comfort of home. Whatever the shape or process that is followed, however, some degree of research is fundamental to many components of the storytelling process, in order to create a plausible world into which the reader may enter.

The following example is taken from A Love Story in my collection of short stories, The Marzipan Fruit Basket.

Each step felt as though broken glass were rubbing at her insides. Sharp pains tore at her thighs and up inside her. Perspiring from the effort, she stopped after one block to catch her breath and wipe at her brow with a handkerchief. The babe slept sweetly. Steadying herself, she resumed. A soft whimper of pain escaped when she jarred her right leg on a raised cobble, sickening her stomach (44).

A Love Story was written after hearing about a medical procedure called symphysiotomy during a visit to Ireland. When I returned home, I read hundreds of pages of transcripts detailing court cases involving women who were survivors of this surgery. The horrific details of the procedure and the subsequent suffering of its victims, drive the story with small details and phrases that were gleaned from the transcripts.

Similarly, in my novel, Eleanor Courtown, this description, as well as all other descriptions of the medical procedures come from my reading of Dr. Langstaff’s medical journals:

I went to Mary and saw at once that her arm was hurt. It was laid out straight beside her in the bed and was covered in a greasy weasel skin. I took the skin and threw it at once to the floor. Granny came to pick it up and made as though to replace it. ‘Hold still,’ I said to her, ‘and let me examine this burn’. “The entire hand and wrist and forearm were oozing with infection. The skin was reddened and melted away in the most appalling condition. And all of it was dotted with filth and would need to be cleaned and drained and dressed. ‘Granny,’ I said, ‘you can help me do this properly and I will be glad of your assistance, or you can cover up this mess again with your filthy skin and potions and be responsible for the gangrene that kills her… (263). 

This passage details the work of country doctors as they navigated the local reliance on the use of home remedies rather than a scientific approach that embraced concepts such as sterilization and the knowledge of contagion. And so, a secondary benefit of completing research becomes the opportunity to ‘shine a light’ on those things of significance that have taken place historically.

By weaving the richness of genuine details into a fiction text, readers become privy to an understanding of those things that have moved the author to tell a particular story. One hopes that experience will also create a level of engagement that goes beyond entertainment and moves the reader to reflect on the heart of the story itself.

I hope this is helpful to your own writing process. Send me a message and let me know!