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Do You Research Before You Write?

Some great thoughts from Robert Penn Warren on researching material before writing a book.

This comes from an interview he did with The Paris Review in 1957.

INTERVIEWER

What is the relation of sociological research and other types of research to the forms of fiction?

WARREN

I think it’s purely accidental. For one writer a big dose of such stuff might be fine, for another it might be poison. I’ve known a good many people, some of them writers, who think of literature as material that you “work up.” You don’t “work up” literature. They point at Zola. But Zola didn’t do that, nor did Dreiser. They may have thought they did, but they didn’t. They weren’t “working up” something—in one sense, something was working them up. You see the world as best you can—with or without the help of somebody’s research, as the case may be. You see as much as you can, and the events and books that are interesting to you should be interesting to you because you’re a human being, not because you’re trying to be a writer. Then those things may be of some use to you as a writer later on. I don’t believe in a schematic approach to material. The business of researching for a book strikes me as a sort of obscenity. What I mean is, researching for a book in the sense of trying to find a book to write. Once you are engaged by a subject, are in your book, have your idea, you may or may not want to do some investigating. But you ought to do it in the same spirit in which you’d take a walk in the evening air to think things over. You can’t research to get a book. You stumble on it, or hope to. Maybe you will, if you live right.

In so many words, I think RPW is essentially saying “write what you know” or maybe “write what you’re passionate about.”

This line jumped out at me:

The business of researching for a book strikes me as a sort of obscenity. What I mean is, researching for a book in the sense of trying to find a book to write.

That doesn’t mean you can’t do research to find something to write about. But, whatever you choose, it probably won’t be something that drives you.

With that motivation, you might pick a topic because it’s popular or because it will make money—not because it’s something that comes from your heart. And I think that’s what RPW meant when he called that approach an “obscenity.”

What do you think? How do you approach researching for your own writing?

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21 Comments Post a comment
  1. lisadesmedt #

    I fully agree with everything PRW said. Reading this is also very comforting because I won’t feel bad anymore about writing something about a subject I know nearly nothing about (e.g. advice, behaviour… topics like that). I’m currently writing a sci-fi trilogy and it involves Atlantis (cliché, I know) so I’m planning on reading Plato’s Critias.

    Like

    June 20, 2013
    • I think it’s motive. If in the course of your research, you find that you genuinely enjoy a subject, then you have a good base there for writing. But if the motive is to just have something to write, then that will shine through and no one, including you, will enjoy your writing.

      Like

      June 20, 2013
      • lisadesmedt #

        I feel the same way. I know that if I don’t like reading Critias I will just make up whatever I want, which I think is the fun part of writing a book. I already have the story in my head and partly written, all I have to do now is explore the details and finish it. I thought that if I was going to write about Atlantis I had to make it believable by meking sure that what I’m writing is based on ‘facts’ (as far as that’s possible when talking about imaginary things). I’m glad I cleared that up, but I will still read Critias. Who knows? Maybe I’ll find a mystery which I can work with in the book.

        Like

        June 20, 2013
  2. Two words. Wolf Hall.

    I not only research, I also verify, and really can’t value – although I might be entertained by – the scribblings of those who don’t.

    Like

    June 20, 2013
    • The issue RPW is addressing is about researching on a topic you already have interest in from life experiences versus researching just to find something to write about. I think the type of research you’re talking about is the former, which is the way I research as well.

      Like

      June 20, 2013
  3. For me, I have to write about things that I am passionate about. Making a novel grow out of nothing is hard wok and if I am not totally into the story, it will die on the vine. If I don’t enjoy writing it, how can I ever expect that a reader will find it pleasurable?

    Great Post.

    Like

    June 20, 2013
  4. I don’t write fiction so of course I research. Yes, I start out with a topic I am interested in, but the course of my research, I might find 10 other topics I’m interested in that I might not have thought about had I not researched.

    In terms of fiction, I get what he’s saying about people searching for a topic. If you don’t have a story or an idea to begin with, then maybe it’s best not to force it. But I suppose it also depends on what ‘research’ entails. If I go on a road trip and hit some townie bars to meet some interesting characters to spark an idea for a new story, is that ‘research’? Just going out and experiencing different things to see if it’s something that can turn into new writing seems quite normal to me. Some writers go around with so many ideas that they never need to do that, but others might need inspiration and might not want to sit around just waiting for that inspiration to hit.

    As for after the inspiration hits and you’re working with the story? Then yes – research is very important. Just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean you can simply talk (or write) out of your ass and expect it to be good.

    Like

    June 20, 2013
  5. I think there’s definite value in this. Any good story feels authentic, what better way to achieve that than writing from experience? Obviously things get a little more complicated with historical novels, set in times or environments you can’t possibly return to, so research is necessary to replicate these as best you can. There are still ways and means of using lived experience in these cases though – visiting stately homes springs to mind.

    Like

    June 20, 2013
  6. You definitely can’t write a historical novel without acquainting yourself with the times you are revisiting. For instance, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the winner of The Orange Broadband Prize For Fiction 2007 for her book, ‘Half of A Yellow Sun,’ which is based on the Nigerian Civil War was not born when the events in the book took place. How can she be so accurate, so authentic, so convincing if she did not indulge in simple.research first? But I do agree with Warren that if you are just writing fiction, it is better to let inspiration lead you on. But even then, you still need research to affirm things.

    Like

    June 20, 2013
  7. A business will always be a business. But I’m agree with RPW. I write because of my passion, and it drives me to do research to verify things.

    Like

    June 20, 2013
  8. I research after I write to fill in or correct the details and to enrich the story.

    Like

    June 20, 2013
  9. Love this. Thanks for taking the time to write it up for us! Billy Collins talks in a poem about the softness of the outer edges of a petal.. it’s something you’d have to feel to get that ah-ha moment. Writers should MAYBE try to live life before they share it with others? Anyways, thanks again!

    Like

    June 20, 2013
  10. Myaz_Nuggetz #

    Reblogged this on Myaz_Nuggetz.

    Like

    June 20, 2013
  11. Authenticity is obviously important. I’m experiencing that right now. Part of the plot of what I’m writing now involves a plague, so I’m researching that. However, it’s all part of the original idea. Doing research to find something to write about strikes me as a bad idea. Or researching a topic – like vampires and werewolves and the like – because it’s popular at the moment and you want to get in on that publicity bothers me.

    Like

    June 20, 2013
  12. Reblogged this on techbeautyblog.

    Like

    June 20, 2013
  13. desfischersseele #

    Maybe it needs some researching at the beginning, to find out if something drives me. Every little look at the world may ready hold something that drives me.

    Like

    June 21, 2013
  14. desfischersseele #

    Reblogged this on Des Fischers Auge.

    Like

    June 21, 2013
  15. To someone just starting out with writing, this was nice to hear. I’ve always known I’ve /wanted/ to write, but I struggled for ages over what to write about. Finally, I just started writing. Not with any topic or subject in mind, but just whatever I happened to be thinking about then. And it’s worked, at least for now. No sense trying to force a strange topic instead of what you’re really thinking.

    Like

    June 21, 2013
  16. I think that if you research something, then become so passionate about it you want to write a book then thats different.
    I like reading books where the author makes me want to research what they’ve written about!

    Like

    June 22, 2013
  17. I agree with the rest of the folks here, once I am in the story I do some research to flesh things out and make sure I have various facts correct. While writing my novel, I recently had to decide what kind of music my character would listen to in her daily life, who might be a favorite singer. I did this so I could have that music playing as I write. And that led to making one scene just a little better.

    Like

    July 3, 2013

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