Another vigorous debate between my husband and I took place while we were running together. Interesting, since our last debate was about whether or not I am a runner… Anyway, I have been feeling stuck on a few writing projects and he thought I should just start plowing through the historical nonfiction work I’m attempting.
I thought I needed to do more research. He thought I could make stuff up, which I referred to as pulling stuff out of my butt. He suggested I just get words onto the screen and then fix them later (he wasn’t telling me to pull stuff out of my butt, at least not without wiping it off later) and this led into a long debate, through huffing and puffing and torrential sweating, about how to write nonfiction. How much research needs to happen and when does it need to happen? How much interpretation can happen especially when weaving together events that happened decades or centuries ago? How does a writer acknowledge interpretation or separate fact from sort-of-fact from utter fiction? Is there a difference? Isn’t history written by conquerors and so it already comes with some twists and interpretations? How does a writer find her way in the maze? Does she defend every word choice with an appendix that is as long as the book itself? Some of my favorite writers do and others don’t, or offer notes on a website.
So if I have an idea of a scene do I try to recreate it or do I lose myself down the rabbit hole of research and clicking, clicking, clicking, or calling, calling, calling and then find that at the end of the day I have written a single sentence that might be deleted later? I say yes, all that research means that sentence is as true as it could possibly be and that is what makes writing nonfiction feel like a treasure hunt – finding pearls and beading them together.
He thought, wouldn’t it just better to get something, some darn thing down on the screen so I don’t mope around feeling like I’ve wasted my time earning a single fact, a single date, a single name of a particular road by scouring maps and comparing date stamps? I can always go back and update it later, I could highlight the places that need more information in order to be confident of their factuality, and then I could just lose myself in the creative process of writing that scene.
Probably we are both right and this is what it looks like to write. Moping, staring, searching, moping some more, deleting, and then…aha! Discovery! And the thrill of that one detail makes it worthwhile. A treasure. That’s why I love nonfiction. When it is well done, I know how much each sentence was a battle the writer won in the end.
Here’s to winning with facts (and to winning debates with spouses).
How much do you research and when does it happen in the writing process?
*a great example of end notes that are as much fun to read as the book itself is: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson
*image via Flickr