Vicki Doudera here.
As you read this, I am traveling home to Camden from sunny Key West and the Key West Literary Seminar. I’ve been lucky enough to be an attendee at the conference, along with fellow Maine Crime Writer Barbara Ross, and we’ve enjoyed discussing the many revelations and insights we’ve gleaned over the week.
It’s tough to choose from all the ideas I have bouncing around in my head for this post, but I thought I’d discuss one topic that came up several times: research.
It was interesting to hear the range of responses given to the question of how much scholarly investigation goes into a work of crime fiction. Some of the writers featured at the seminar spend untold hours pouring over historical documents to set their mysteries in other time periods, while others rely less on research and more on imagination. Malla Nunn whose book, Let the Dead Lie takes place in South Africa during the 1950’s, falls into this latter camp. Family stories told around the dinner table were the basis for the novel,not strict historical accounts. (Side note — I was unfamiliar with this writer before the conference, and she was a pleasant surprise.)
Researching places for settings was a popular discussion item as well. Elizabeth George said she hits the pavement, doing what her editor calls “topographic gumshoeing,” strolling around and photographing the places she plans to write about. I followed that same process for my novels Killer Listing and Deadly Offer, set in Florida and California, finding that immersion in a new place gave me a wealth of tiny details that I might not have noticed otherwise: the smell of ripened grapes on the fine in Sonoma, California, or the unique flora and fauna of Florida’s Gulf Coast. For a writer who loves to travel, it’s easy duty!
Tess Gerritsen, my friend and fellow Camdenite, spoke about the way some of her travels or interests ended up in books. She talked about having a fascination for mummies, which became the inspiration for The Keepsake, and how an African safari helped create the plot of her current novel. While some of her “topographic gumshoeing” may be not be planned, it’s clear Tess puts any ideas that arise to very good use.
The amount and type of research an author conducts is obviously a personal choice, and the varied comments regarding the topic kept driving that home. Author Lee Child made an interesting point that I’ve been pondering, because it seems to sum up the whole thing in a nice, neat, way. He said that with regard to research, it isn’t so much authenticity that’s needed in a novel, but plausibility.
I think he’s correct in drawing the distinction, but I’m not exactly sure why. Is it because being plausible is less bound up in facts that can weigh a novel down? Does “authentic” necessarily mean that a story becomes pedantic?
What do you think? Is plausibility what we should be aiming for, or do we strive for authenticity? And how much research is too much?