The (literal) nature of research

Writing fiction requires authors to ferret out a lot of facts.

On the surface, it seems like a paradox. Massive swaths of the story are pure fabrication straight from the author’s imagination. Why would a writer – particularly a fantasy writer like me – need to delve into research?

Ah, because the devil – as he so often tends to be – is in the details.

Those wide swaths of story that we conjure from our imagination need to be grounded in a bit of reality so readers can relate to it. The tiny grains of fact and detail that we sow into our writing give the words a sense of authenticity.

Sometimes my novel research is as simple as a quick trip to Google. (By “quick trip,” I mean the actual time it takes to find the answer … I inevitably tumble down a rabbit hole of reading articles and checking social media afterward. By the time I resume writing, at least twenty minutes have passed.)

Often research involves keeping a stack of reference materials nearby. Other times, it involves reading 400 pages of nonfiction or waiting for interlibrary loans to arrive.

A stack of reference materials I keep on hand while writing The Witch’s Witness.

Then there’s the firsthand research. For The Witch’s Witness, this has been my favorite kind.

Much of the plot centers around Heather Barlow, a flora witch with an innate skill to manipulate the inherent power in plants. A significant portion of the story happens outdoors and relies on describing the sounds, scents, and sensations of Heather’s surroundings.

Black was not the color of death. To Heather, it was brown.

When she had last seen the beech lying prone in the glen, the sawtoothed leaves had still held the vibrant, healthy green of summer. Even though she could no longer sense the steady beat of life in its wide trunk, the green still gave a veneer of immortality. 

The illusion was broken now. The leaves were withered brown husks, flaking away from the branches like curls of dead skin. Their crunch under her boots made her flinch with every step, as though she walked barefoot on crushed glass. Had the tree fallen in autumn, the scene would not have been so jarring. The color of death would have blended well with the color of seasonal sleep as the plant world went dormant. But here, in the vibrancy of July, it was as stark as blood on beige carpet.

– Excerpt from The Witch’s Witness

To capture the nuances of nature, I can’t sift through the pages of a book. I have to immerse in nature itself. For that reason, much of my research lately has involved abandoning the keyboard and tying up the laces on my hiking shoes.

A beech tree at the Morton Arboretum

The beech tree mentioned in the excerpt above plays a significant role in Heather’s life. I grew up on five rural acres with an assortment of tree species – oaks, Scots pines, balsam firs, spruce, pear, apple, cherry, walnut, euonymus – but no beeches, so last summer I ventured to the Morton Arboretum to experience a beech grove. I wanted to know firsthand details, such as what the texture of its bark felt like against the skin of my palm, or how its branches sprawled and spiraled.

Getting out of the house and absorbing the world through my own senses is the best research I can bring to my desk.

Another thought on firsthand research for writers: A great way to replenish inspiration and find new ideas is to put yourself into new situations. I’m a notorious wimp during Midwestern winter weather and rarely leave the house if I don’t have to, but earlier this year I went on a winter hike along the Illinois & Michigan Canal trail. It gave me the chance to experience a familiar place in a new season. The trees grow thickly along the canal, and for the first time I heard their barren branches grating against each other with a sound like a rusty door hinge. It’s a detail I’ve squirreled away in my mental log, ready for whenever I need to add a bit of color or authenticity to a fiction scene.