Learning to Relish Research with Kim van Alkemade
As writers, we sometimes get caught up in the idea that we are only being productive if we are, well, writing. But there are large parts of the creative process that are just as important as putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) that should also be given their due. Last September, I was fortunate enough to attend a craft talk by author Kim van Alkemade, who published her debut historical fiction novel, Orphan #8, in August of 2015. On the docket for discussion: the ins and outs of researching.
First of all, van Alkemade stressed that research is not a tedious, dimly-lit backroom affair. It is a vibrant, engaging process meant to enliven your creative energies—not squash them. So to be a successful researcher, the first things you need to get rid of are any preconceived ideas or traumatic memories from those high school history projects that had you banging your head against a wall. Try looking at research as idea generation, a way to spark new ideas that would otherwise never have crossed your mind..
Once you’ve exorcised the ghosts of past research experiences, van Alkemade stresses that research must be fluid. You may go in looking for one thing, and come out with something completely different. Rather than brushing new ideas off as rabbit trails, she encourages writers to at least jot these digressions down for later. If you’re looking up the fauna of a particular region for one story, and end up at a website about the aesthetics of lamps that sparks another idea, embrace it! Keep track of your wanderings because you never know when something will be useful down the line. Tying into this fluidity of research, she also recommends something a bit counterintuitive: taking bad notes.
Van Alkemade’s example of bad note-taking working in favor of the creative process was drawn from her own work. In fact, she discovered the idea for her book, Orphan #8, completely by accident while researching the orphanage where her grandfather and great uncle grew up. She had gone in with the aim of writing a nonfiction piece about her family history, but her research led her elsewhere. While sifting through the expenditure records she came across an entry about wigs ordered for Jewish orphans who were involved in medical experiments. She jotted down the information—in poor handwriting—and moved on, thinking nothing of it at the time. When she rediscovered her note, enough of the details had faded that she only vaguely recollected the names of the people involved, but the makings of a story formed in her head. Instead of renewing her research about these specific people, though, she wrote while inspiration struck, allowing herself to create around the facts she recalled and filling in gaps with her imagination.
After getting a solid start on a piece, van Alkemade also encourages writers to overcome their fear of archives. Formal research institutions, museums, libraries, and historical societies can all be helpful, depending on your work’s specific focus. She also recommends other techniques, including reading psychology, philosophy or medical books from the period you are writing about and looking at pictures from that time (if you’re tackling something historical). If you have a specific location in mind for a piece, visit it to soak in details that are only available through direct contact. Although formal research institutions and archives are certainly an invaluable resource, they should not be the only things that spring to mind. Research can be, well, just about anything, so don’t discount modern tools like the internet. A trip through videos on YouTube can be just as helpful as a jaunt through a library—if you go in with a goal.
Van Alkemade’s next step in researching is vital: stopping. Van Alkemade admits that when research becomes engaging and dynamic, it can also become addictive or distracting, standing in the way of your writing instead of augmenting it. Rather than getting bogged down in the exact details of her main character’s factual life while writing Orphan #8, she made up what she couldn’t remember and formed her own unique character. Her main character was born in the US, while the real woman she was based on was born in Austria. Her character went to school in New York, the real woman when to Cornell. Van Alkemade was glad she didn’t remember the specifics. If she had, the book might never have been written, overrun instead by overly-meticulous facts that would have inhibited van Alkemade from running with her own fictional story.
Of course, once she had created a firm understanding of her character and formed the basic plot for her novel, the real research began—this time with a focused time period to examine and reproduce. This is where research should become a bit less fluid. Although marking down random ideas and inspirations you might run across is important during the idea generation phase of writing, it is equally important to stay on task if you are looking for a very particular fact for a story or novel that is already complete and in the accuracy-ensuring phase of production.
Although some of van Alkemade’s tips centered on historical fiction writing in particular, almost all of these lessons extend to other genres as well. I learned that research can take you anywhere. You may begin on a mission to write about your own family, and end up with a novel. The important thing is getting out there and finding information. You never know what random tidbit will inspire you. The material itself will dictate, in many ways, the type of piece you write.
By: Emily Woodoworth