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Creative Nonfiction: Doing Research to Increase Understanding

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August 2012
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Dave Hood

Conducting research is the part of the “nonfiction” aspect of writing creative nonfiction. It is one of the Five R’s of creative nonfiction, one of the essential components of writing personal essays, memoirs, and literary journalism.  The amount of required research for a writing project depends on the form of creative nonfiction. Research involves collecting facts to increase understanding of a person, place, event, idea, experience, thing.

In this article, I’ll explain the purpose of research, identify the methods of research, and how to research your own life. 

Purpose of Research

You carry out research to increase your understanding of a person, topic, idea. You also do research to see what else has been written on the topic that you are going to write about. You don’t want to duplicate what is already written. You can also do research to become a subject matter expert.

Research also allows you to verify facts. You want to be sure that what you written is true and accurate.

And research has another purpose: To stimulate our memories. Often when we investigate an experience or event, memories associated with the event rise into our minds from depths of unconsciousness.

If you intend to write a memoir, you’ll be required to complete extensive research into your own life — to recall significant details of people, places, events from your own past.

Facts from research can also be used by the writer to create metaphors or similes. Brenda Miller suggests this in her book,  “Tell It Slant.”

Some forms of creative nonfiction require more research than other forms. For example, a personal essay about a canoe trip to a lake that resulted in an epiphany requires less research than a memoir. The canoe trip might only require you to consult your writing journal and to speak with the friend who accompanied you on the canoe trip, whereas a memoir will  involve interviewing friends and family, visiting the library and public records offices, revisiting the places you frequented during the period of the memoir, and obtaining details about the popular culture of the time by conducting research with a Google search.

There are two drawbacks to doing research. First, the tsunami of facts that you collect can overwhelm, preventing you from writing. Secondly, research can result in procrastination. In other words, the task of researching a project often prevent you from writing the narrative.

Methods of Research

Immersion. You acquire an understanding by “living the experience.” Suppose you intend to write a story about baseball, but you’d never played this game before. You could increase your understanding by playing a few games of baseball. You would then use what you learned from the experience to write your piece of creative nonfiction.

Interviewing. A popular approach is to interview a subject matter expert, or talk to people who participated in the event or experience, or interview those who were a witnesses to the event, or interview those who knew the person you are writing about. An interview always requires a list of question to ask. These questions should be open-ended, requiring the person being interviewed to respond with more than a “yes” or “no.”

The Reference Library. The reference library contains a sea of information, including:

  • Newspapers
  • Magazines
  • Books
  • Periodicals
  • Encyclopaedias
  • Publications on microfilm, such as old newspapers
  • Online catalogues to help you find facts

Be sure to ask the librarian for assistance.

The Internet. Begin by conducting a Google search, the most popular search engine. There is also Google Scholar, which you can use for scholarly searches. Then read and collect useful facts at reputable websites. For instance, suppose you want to learn more about modern and contemporary art, you could visit “The Art Story website at www.artstory.org. To help you find information, you can use the Search tool on the website. Not only can you read content on websites, but you can read blog postings. Many subject matter experts have their own blogs in which they post articles, commentaries, and so forth. And YouTube offers you information via video and photographs.

Public Records. Sometimes you’ll be require to verify facts. The public records is the place to fact check marriage licences, dates of birth, and death certificates.

Researching Your Own Life

Writing a personal essay often requires that you research your own life before writing. This is mandatory when writing a memoir. Research allows you to check the accuracy memories. Research enables you to recall details of the popular culture, as well as the social and economic and historical conditions of the life you lived in the past.

Research also enables you to mine your own memory, enabling you to recall people, places, events, experiences that have long been forgotten. Why? Researching a timeline or time period stimulates your memory. You can start with a timeline. For instance, do a Google search to find out what happened in 1980. The Google search results of the events of that year will enable you to recall memories of things that happened to you during that year

Besides using a timeline, there are many other ways to research your own life, including:

  • Challenges, setbacks, obstacles. For instance, what is the biggest challenge you have faced in life? What is the saddest moment in your life?
  • Moves, leaving home, first home, place where you lived after the divorce.
  • Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, marriages, deaths
  • First experience, such as your first kiss, first new car, first speech, first job
  • Achievements. What are your accomplishments?
  • Legacy. What do you want to be remembered for?
  • Revisit places of your childhood, adolescence, or adulthood
  • Look over old photographs, read old diaries and journals and letters, leaf through old scrapbooks.

Author, Lois Daniel, has written a must-read text for anyone who desires to write personal narrative essays or a memoir. Her book is called, “How to Write Your Life Story.” She explains, provides tips, and suggestions on how you can tap into memory, and rediscover your favorite toys as a child, write about inventions that have significantly impacted you, accomplishments you are most proud of, happy and sad family events, favorite pets, friends and family who have passed through your life, and much more.

What sort of research will be required? The type of narrative determines what information/facts the writer provides the reader. (You Can’t Make this Stuff Up by Lee Gutkind)The key points to remember: creative nonfiction writers do research  to increase their understanding of themselves and the world in which they live. And yet, too much research, a mountain of facts, can blow out the flame of creativity. And so, a writer ought to do only as much research as required to understand the topic, person, idea, he/she is write about.

Resources. For more information on how to increase your understanding by research, read the following:

  • You Can’t Make this Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything In Between by Lee Gutkind.
  • To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
  • Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, Second Edition, by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
  • How to Write Your Own Life Story: The Classic Guide for the nonprofessional Writer by Lois Daniel
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1 Comment

  1. Jane says:

    Spot on advice. When I workshopped a chapter of my memoir to a prose-writing class, a few had no idea what a catheter was, so since some of what I write is related to my mom’s medical condition/procedures after her stroke, I have found ways to include brief definitions of these types of things. And for sure, researching what’s already out there in your genre is essential and very time-consuming but worthwhile; you have to find an angle no one else has written about (and every time I research this, I’m holding my breath…) Jane

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