Finding Your Story in Your Research

It may surprise some of you to learn that of my ten published books, two are fiction. In fact, my first two published books were novels three and four in the four-volume Ann of the Prairie series, now out of print. The books actually sold well and we had a nice endorsement for the series from Janette Oke who said: “Heartwarming and heart-rending…a reminder of what life was really like.”

I was such a novice—this was twenty years ago—but I do remember at the time thinking Wow, I can do this! I can write a novel! I remember that it was important to me to make that mental note because I instinctively knew that in the future, self-doubts might crop up—as they surely did.

My next eight books were all non-fiction, but the fiction bug, along with the realization wow, I can do this! has never left me. Every so often I steel myself on the edge of the deep end of the pool and consider making the jump. Now is such a time. Partly the decision is based on the lack of movement with some non-fiction proposals I’ve prepared. (I’m astonished no publisher is begging to publish these terrific books 🙂 , but such is the case). Naturally, I’m assuming the minute I get totally absorbed in a novel, I’ll have all kinds of renewed interest in my non-fiction. Such is the writer’s life.

As I’ve been thinking about the historical novel I want to write, I’ve been a bit stuck in that I only know the ending so far. That’s unusual for me, but I’m game to try writing to an ending I already have in mind. The problem is finding out what happens on the first 250 pages of the book. I’ve tried to figure it out, but to no avail. But since I know the era and the major historical event that plays a huge part in the plot, last night I decided to begin my research even without a plot. And as I read, I realized that just allowing myself to be transported to the time and place of the story may be enough to eventually reveal the story I want to tell. It was thrilling, in a way. As I was reading, I could almost imagine my three (so far) characters in the setting. Surely that’s a good start. I know those three storyless characters are quite anxious. I can see them standing in the streets of the city in question, arms crossed, looking to me to give them their script. Sorry guys! I’m doing my best!

I’m anxious now to do some more reading and hope that the story will be hidden in the pages of the non-fiction books I’m reading. This rings true with one of my favorite Stephen King quotes about writing:

Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground. . . . Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or GameBoys. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand-page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.

No matter how good you are, no matter how much experience you have, it’s probably impossible to get the entire fossil out of the ground without a few breaks and losses. To get even most of it, the shovel must give way to more delicate tools: airhose, palm-pick, perhaps even a toothbrush. Plot is a far bigger tool, the writer’s jackhammer. you can liberate a fossil from hard ground with a jackhammer, no argument there, but you know as well as I do that the jackhammer is mechanical, anticreative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artifical and labored.

So right now, I’m digging for my story amid the ruins of history.


Have some of you found your story during or after your research, and not before?

9 replies
  1. alice sharpe says:

    Loved the Stephen King quote and reading about the journey you are on to excavate your story. I can see your characters standing there, tapping feet, exchanging impatient glances… waiting. They should not fret. Embrace your fiction self, let go of doubts, go forth!

    Just saying…

  2. Jacqueline Ley says:

    Enjoyed reading this. I too am currently writing a novel and know roughly where I’m heading but the story is unfolding as I write. It’s the first time I’ve tackled a novel in quite this way so was encouraged to read the following quote recently (not sure who said it) ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’

  3. Kathryn says:

    Thanks for sharing moments in your journey of writing. I watched a Jan Karon video recently. She said people always ask her, “Where do you get your characters?” Her answer was (this is a paraphrase)….”I don’t get my characters. They get me. A rough, acting/ talking man came walking into my second book. I prayed and ask the Lord what to do about this character, and He showed me.” I thought this was great. I’m working on letting go of the urge to “over-outline” and letting the characters “speak” to me. With the help of the Lord, I’m anticipating an over-flow of words.

    Will look forward to reading your historical novel soon!

  4. Rachel says:

    This is exciting! I hope you’ll document your progress here a little so we can keep up with you.

  5. BK Jackson says:

    Well for my first novel, it came about completely as a result of my research. I love Arizona and it has been my heart’s desire to write a series of novels set here. So while reading an old military report the what if questions it raised in my mind simply wouldn’t let me go and I had to write it.

    That novel in turn inspired a prequel which I am in the midst of writing right now–I don’t have the prequel plotted out entirely, but know pretty much how it will flow and end.

    Likewise, that research and first novel inspired a sequel–that one I don’t have an ending in mind, and there is one particular plot problem I haven’t figured out how to overcome because it involves medical research (a long story), but I’m not giving up on it.

    I would say the bulk of my story ideas come as a result of research. If I could make my living researching Arizona’s history I’d be in hog heaven. 😎

  6. Michael K. Reynolds says:

    When I’m in my research mode, I’m overwhelmed with plot possibilities. In fact, I get so lost in the pleasure of the spidery twists and turns of the action and characters of those days gone by I typically need to call for the helicopter to come and extract me from this non-fiction potpourri so I can get to the work of making things up on my own blank sheets of paper. It’s much like when I enter a bookstore and tell my wife, “If I don’t come out in an hour, send someone in to get me.”

  7. Jeff Adams says:

    Nick, thanks for sharing a little about your adventure. It’s always fun for me to travel back through time and meet new people. I love talking with them, getting to know them. It’s less of an interview and more of a friendship. Over time, they begin to trust me. They reveal their weaknesses and fears, their hopes and dreams. I learn what motivates them and what thwarts them. For more than 16 years I’ve met with Saul of Tarsus. The secrets he’s revealed have helped me connect the dots and resolve the paradoxes of his life. Maybe someday he’ll let me write his story. You’ve stirred my curiosity. I need to talk with him again soon.

  8. Dana Edwards says:

    I am new to your blog and I really enjoyed reading it. I loved the Stephen King quote and am pretty sure I read it once in “On Writing”. (I really liked that book, and I’m not even a big King fan.) I am just about finished writing an “almost all true “novel about my Dad’s growing up years in Texas in the late 1940s. The fact that Dad is still alive makes doing the research, and getting it right, much easier. I am sure I’ll be back to read more of your blog. Thanks! Dana –

  9. Kathy Nickerson says:

    I’ve just re-read this post. I’ve been given a daunting writing project, and I don’t know where to begin. It is the creative non-fiction story of an entire community. I finally decided to just start doing the research and see what takes shape. Then I remembered this post and came back for some encouragement! Thank you. I’m off to find my T-Rex. Or a seashell. Either one will do.

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