When Research Meets Plot
By Susan Sloate
There are wonderful benefits to researching a novel. Good research provides you with information to draw on in creating the world of your story (something that’s important in a lot of novels but critical in historical). It adds flavor and anchors the reader firmly in a time and place. (this is especially true if your research turns up small unknown details readers can drool over).
For me, I believe that the more research you do, especially on a historical novel, the less you actually have to come up with in the way of important plot points. Do enough reading on an arcane subject and you can blend your research with your fiction to create a seamless story tapestry. The reader won’t know where fact ends and your imagination begins.
Want an example? My latest novel, FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition (co-authored with Kevin Finn), is about the JFK assassination (a timely subject this fall, with the 50th anniversary of that event). I will admit we spent years researching this one, but I believe in the process, we turned up stuff that became gold in the story.
For instance, we learned in studying JFK’s life that his father Joe was worried that Jack’s various illnesses, especially his Addison’s disease (a weakness of the adrenal glands), could hit the headlines and destroy his political career. And while an aide always carried a bag of medicines when JFK was out in public, what would happen if he ever got separated from them?
Turns out Joe Sr. had considered that possibility. His solution? He took safe-deposit boxes in bank vaults all over the country and stashed medications for Jack in all of them. The idea was that no matter where he was in the US, if he ever ran out of medication or got separated from that black medical bag, he could still get fresh refills, and most important, it could be kept a secret.
As soon as we learned that, we knew we had to use it. I mean, how fantastic is that for a plot point? An incapacitated president being chased by assassins who’s also desperate for meds but can’t tell anyone? LOVE it!
So in our story, at one point all three of our intrepid heroes go to a bank vault to get into one of those special safe-deposit boxes. NOBODY who has ever written fiction about JFK has ever used that. But we who had done the research—we could, and did.
A much smaller point involved Lee Harvey Oswald. In our research we learned that he was a surprisingly good dancer, that at his wedding, his wife’s aunt taught him to waltz and he picked it up at once. We used that. It was a great character moment, totally unexpected and led to the next big emotional moment.
We couldn’t make this stuff up. Some of it so stretches credibility that no one would believe it. But finding that basis in fact gave us the confidence to go out on a limb, because we knew it had actually happened. And because it was fresh material, stuff no one else had woven into fiction before us, it made us look like creative geniuses. There’s far more truth than fiction in FORWARD TO CAMELOT, I promise you.
This is, of course, a two-edged sword. For years after we published the first edition in 2003, we heard wonderful compliments about our original and exciting plot. People would point out story points they especially enjoyed and ask how in the world we came up with them. And we would have to (painfully, at times) admit that actually, we hadn’t: it came out of our research.
Funny, they would then look disappointed and murmur something about the great research, but it sounded far less enthusiastic. Ah, well.
It’s amazing how many wonderful ideas you can get from delving into the research, which you can use to push your plot forward in a unique way. And believe me, you’d never have thought that stuff up yourself. No fiction writer is that creative.
Yeah, it takes hours from the actual writing.
But on the other side of the coin, when you let the facts drive your story, think how many hours it saves.