Peering Under Stones: Research for Fiction

by Rachel Pastan

Once, going up an escalator in a New York City department store, I casually asked a friend, “So, what kind of school did you have to go to become a museum curator?” She thought I was taking an interest. Really, I was fishing for information for a novel.

This is one kind of research for fiction: casual, compelling, undercover. I do it a lot. Sometimes people who know me well catch me at it. Other times they accuse me of fishing when I’m just interested in hot air ballooning or the landscape of Siberia. Not that the wall between fishing and just being interested is impermeable; almost anything may turn out to be useful sooner or later.

When I was working on my second novel, about a Russian literature professor and a herpetologist, I did a lot of library research. I read books about Russian water nymphs and the hag Baba Yaga, and I immersed myself in Sofya Tolstoy’s diaries. I looked up interviews with women scientists, subscribed to The Journal of Herpetology (herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians), and even audited a University of Wisconsin course on terrestrial vertebrates.

I learned a lot about frogs, turtles, and lizards in that course, but it was the snakes that seduced me. With their strange beauty, their powerful metaphorical associations, and the way they rouse strong visceral reactions, snakes seemed like the total fictional package. During one of the class field trips, I stomped—seven months pregnant!—across muddy spring fields, peering under stones as we’d been directed to do. When I lifted a rock and uncovered a young snake, I grabbed it and ran to show the professor. In that moment,  I wasn’t gathering material and the snake was not a metaphor. It was all animal: cool, wriggling, fork-tongued.

Part of the joy of reading (and writing) fiction is immersing ourselves in lives and worlds very different from our own. As writers, we have a responsibility to get those worlds right—at least respectably (respectfully) so. For the past few months I have been doing research for a novel about a geneticist who works with corn, and trying to getting it right has been some of the hardest work I’ve ever done. I have read biographies of plant geneticists and books about the history of genetics. I have pored over scientific papers and articles. I have studied Wikipedia entries for meiosis, epigenetics, and trilobites; spent afternoons in archives reading old letters; and watched animations of cells dividing.

Then there are the field trips. Last summer, having gathered my courage, I visited a friendly corn biologist at the University of Delaware who, after I emailed him out of the blue, offered to show me his cornfield. Some of the crucial scenes in the novel will take place in a cornfield, and I had never really looked at one before. I had certainly never walked through one with a geneticist and looked at the stalks and ears and tassels (and weeds and pests) through his eyes.

It was a hot August day when the geneticist took me around, and the corn, rustling drily, was taller than we were. He described his research, which had to do with disease resistance. I nodded a lot and scribbled in my notebook, but mostly I was writing things like: “Hard earth, sticky stalks. Trees, outbuildings, pipes, barrels. Tap bag and shake to collect pollen. Selfing— fertilizing a plant with its own pollen. Sibbing—fertilizing a plant with the pollen of a sibling plant. Big black wasps.” These are the kinds of things I need to know to bring a scene a life: some vivid details of the physical world, and a little bit of lingo. Selfing and wasps.

Of course, research shouldn’t overshadow the story, nor should it call attention to itself. As Lily King wrote about her novel Euphoria, based on the life of Margaret Mead: “My research needed to be like an undergarment in the days before people started showing off their boxers and their bra straps. I didn’t want any of it to show through.” This requires discipline: the urge to show off how much one has learned can be potent and dangerous—though sometimes a writer gets away with it. In American Pastoral, Philip Roth lays out the glove-making process in ferocious detail, but, compelled by the power and beauty of his prose style, I devoured every word.

Inevitably some of what one learns—or even a great deal of it—ends up being irrelevant. The herpetologist character in my book got folded, in the course of revision, into the Russian literature professor. Two characters with opposite impulses became one character torn by conflicting impulses. It was a sounder narrative strategy, but the terrestrial vertebrates class turned out to be a waste of time.

Except not entirely. When I was nearly done with the novel, I wrote a scene in which the Russian literature professor’s three-year-old daughter lifts a stone in the park and finds a little snake, which she insists on taking home and naming Stripey. The moment in the muddy Wisconsin field, which I’d thought was just life, turned out to be fodder for the beast of fiction after all.

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One thought on “Peering Under Stones: Research for Fiction

  1. sven birkerts says:

    Research as an undergarment! In this one way we should remain good Victorians–When your slip is showing, your show is slipping. Vital thoughts here.

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