Five Reasons to Use Fiction in Research
Blogger: Michelle Ule
Filling in for Rachel Kent
I’m about to start writing another novella; this one takes place in turn-of-the-last-century Alaska. I haven’t been to Skagway, Alaska, in 21 years, so I can’t trust my memory about events and locales. I need something to get me in the mood. So I’ve been reading fiction.
As an historian, I know better than to use fiction as “real” research, but it can provide something of what I need before I dive into memoirs and history books. I’ve come up with five ways fiction can serve the novelist preparing to write.
1. To find emotions
“They” say if you want to learn political history, read a history book. If you want to know about social history, however, an historical novel may be a better option.
History tells you what happened, historical fiction tells you why and how while giving you a sense of the emotions of the era. A good historical writer will be able to place the reader into the context of the times. Fiction can help with those feelings.
The mountains don’t change, nor do the waterways. The climate remains basically the same–does it snow in Alaska in August? What does the air “taste” like before snow falls? Is the rain vertical or horizontal?
What about the flora and fauna? I know bears inhabit the rivers and creeks, but what other animals live in my setting? How big is a moose anyway? Fiction can give sensory details in a way a text book might not.
3. To meet characters
Obviously, I’m not going to snatch characters out of Call of the Wild, but Jack London’s book can give me a feel for the types of grubstakers he met in Skagway in 1897. Particularly in short stories, authors sketch stereotypes to populate the wooden sidewalks of muddy frontier towns.
Most towns on the edge of the world feature drunks and prostitutes, but who else might be there? What Native Americans live in the area and how did townsfolk treat them? A good fictional story can inspire thoughts on the type of people I might want to include in my story.
I live in a city. I don’t worry about gathering food for the winter, much less wood. One novel I recently read recounted how much trouble a family went through to collect berries, grow vegetables, and shoot game. They lived so far from the civilized “grid” that they had to focus on survival fundamentals. A novel can describe the necessary fortitude it takes to pioneer an area, not to mention the back-breaking work.
5. To inspire additional research
Sometimes what you find in reading fiction raises questions about accuracy. Apply discernment, don’t believe everything you read, and use fictionalized details as a jumping off point for your own research.
If it sounds unlikely, it’s time to break out the non-fiction works and double-check.
I recently read an Alaskan novel that featured people wandering around in shorts and flip-flops. I was so surprised I questioned my family: Did we wear shorts and flip-flops either time we visited Alaska?
My husband laughed. “Of course not. The mosquitoes and no-seeums would have eaten us alive!”
What about surfing?
I googled “Alaska surfing” and discovered a lot of surfing can take place in the state with more coastline than the entire continental United States.
Who would have guessed?
That information won’t affect my novel, but it sure is an interesting fact and prompted me to find out even more obscure information about Alaska.
What fictional works have been helpful in researching or understanding a setting or time period?
Can you recommend anything, fiction or non, about Alaska?