Novelists, like screenwriters, sometimes get a little too creative with creative license for my liking. By that I mean their story lines strain credibility. Having a character who can stretch his limbs like Rubberman, or display any other super power commonly found in comic books, is fine in a fantasy or science fiction tale. However, when I’m reading a literary or contemporary novel I just cringe when I come across a scene that’s grossly inaccurate. When a firefighter, for example, performs emergency surgery on a car crash victim who is trapped in a vehicle while the rest of the rescue team urges her on instead of using the jaws of life to extract the victim, I get annoyed. If the obvious errors happen too often, it can turn a dramatic story into a comedy for me. Or, in cases where the book is riddled with mistakes, like the one I started reading the other day, I’ll stop reading. A book with five factual errors in the first 50 pages, just doesn’t hold my interest.
That’s why when I decided to write my first novel after working for over 30 years as a freelance journalist, I spent weeks doing research even before I typed P1 on my blank computer screen. My novel, Playing the Genetic Lottery, is a fictional memoir of a woman who grew up with two schizophrenic parents. It was important to me that I portray the devastating mental illness accurately, even though I was writing fiction.
I began my research for calling a friend who has a brother who is schizophrenic. Chris and I have been close friends for over 20 years, and I’ve gotten to know his brother Charles fairly well. Over the years Chris has shared with me some with me some of the challenges he and his family have faced trying to get Charles the care he needs. Chris was happy to provide me with detailed information about his brother’s illness and treatment programs. He also discussed the impact his brother’s illness has had on their family. During one of our conversations, Chris also pointed me toward several resources, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
I scoured the NAMI website, and followed links to over a dozen different sites. I bought some of the books Chris recommended, and I checked out nearly every book I could find on schizophrenia from my local library. After I began writing I gave chapters to Chris, and a couple of other friends who are familiar with mental illness, to read. Based on their comments, I rewrote several of the chapters .
After conducting all that research, and my long experience writing non-fiction, my first few chapters ended up reading like a text book. I rewrote those as well after my husband reminded me that the role of a novelist is to reveal, rather than tell.
I’m taking a similar approach with what I plan to be my next novel. Now that I have one novel under my belt, I felt I had the credibility to call up professional strangers and ask to interview them. Most of the people I’ve contacted have been extremely gracious in sharing their expertise and experiences, although a few have yet to return my calls or respond to my emails. In those cases, I asked my sources to recommend others who could help me fill in my knowledge gaps. Several people I’ve interviewed have also offered to read drafts for accuracy and realism. And yes, I’ve spent hours on the internet, cleared out the shelves of my local library, and bought several books that have proven to be excellent resources.
The only drawback I’ve found to conducting so much research is that, at least for me, it’s hard to stop. I’m not sure if that’s because I love learning about new things, am worried about overlooking something, or if it’s a way of procrastinating. So far, I’ve conducted enough research to fill four file folders. I’ve outlined the novel, created my key characters, established a setting, and even bought a new flash drive to back up my drafts on. Working on this blog post made me realize it’s time to stop researching and start writing. While I want to make sure my novel passes the reality check, I have to write it first.
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