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Fiction and research: firing the imagination

I’ve been thinking about doing research for fiction. Partly this has been on my mind since Michael White’s craft program a couple of weeks ago, when he talked about how historical research can fire the imagination. I’ve admired Michael’s novels (especially A Brother’s Blood, Soul Catcher, Garden of Martyrs) and loved hearing stories about the ways in which research plus imagination breathed life into his stories and his characters.

My own fiction tends to be contemporary and my experiences with research have been with interviews rather than libraries. And that’s the other reason this topic has been on my mind. My manuscript-in-progress involves a college student, a botany major who is obsessed about disappearing plant species. Writing this novel requires far more scientific background than I have. I needed help.

Last year, about halfway through writing the first draft, I realized that my main character was interested in permaculture. A writing friend referred me to the Franklin Permaculture Garden at UMass. A student garden manager answered my initial email and invited me to visit. There’s nothing like wandering through the garden, swatting gnats and making notes and taking photos and asking questions to excite the muse.

When the first draft of the manuscript was done, the plot had a hole requiring scientific information to fill. I needed more help. Back to UMASS (let’s hear it for public higher education!), first for a meeting with a science librarian for background, and then an interview with a professor of plant pathology, who knew exactly what I needed and shared his excitement for the subject as well as his knowledge. The professor’s enthusiasm and his willingness to play the “what if” game with me, brought me full circle to Michael White's comments: in addition to lending credibility to the work, research helped me ground the story, develop the character and fire my imagination.

I’m always amazed – and so grateful – when people with expertise are generous in sharing their knowledge. Thank you again, Lilly, Macci, and Dan.
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