The Research Trap


I’m reading Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, a non-fiction account of an American Olympian’s unrelenting ordeals as a POW in the Pacific during World War II.  The book is a genuine page-turner. Just when you think things couldn’t get any worse for this poor guy, they do. But what struck me as I was reading–and distracted me–was the kind of detail she provides. Where did she get all this information? The design of a B-24 bomber probably isn’t that hard to find. But the subject’s favorite foods? Incidents with his high-school chums? Verbatim messages he was forced to deliver for Japanese propaganda radio broadcasts? I can see how Hillenbrand could have unearthed some of this stuff, but page after page is full of wonderful material.

I turned to the Acknowledgments, hoping to find out how she’d done such amazing job. Well, right off the bat I learned that she was able to interview her subject who in his nineties was ready, willing, and able to share his stories. She also found others who had lived through that period willing to talk. Some kept diaries and scrapbooks and saved letters and newspaper clippings, which they shared with Hillenbrand. She also used various libraries and archives in the US and Japan. She was lucky to have found such rich sources of information, but luck doesn’t detract from her achievement in putting it all together to create an exciting read. She deserves all the kudos she’s received.

Researching a non-fiction book can be a full of traps. Fiction, not so much. (Settle down–I can hear the complaints already.) When a novelist says he’s researching his next historical novel, he’s like a shopper in the supermarket filling his cart. He knows what he wants to write about and already has a pretty good idea of how the plot will go. What he’s looking for is interesting details to give his story color and texture. Oh, I think I’ll have my protagonist wear these clothes, work at this kind of job, worship at that kind of church. It takes work–no question about that–but it can’t stop you dead in your tracks the way non-fiction research can. The only research trap for fiction is finding mesmerizing gems that distract you from the bigger story. A French foot soldier in the 14th century would drag his own dead goat to war for food, hacking off pieces of meat whenever his stomach growled and the enemy wasn’t trying to kill him. It’s a great detail, but if you divert your entire plot just to work in the dead goat, the narrative thrust might suffer and your novel could become like a dead goat–smelly and indigestible.

But with non-fiction, the traps are more perilous. You can dig for months, filling notebooks, underlining stacks of books, photocopying articles, assembling your arsenal, but then one inconvenient fact can cross your path and stop your progress like a huge boulder in the road. This fact might call into question everything you believed about the story you wanted to tell. Your urge is to ignore it, but you know you can’t. Even if you get it by your editor, some reviewer somewhere will call you on it, embarrass you, and worse, discredit your work. You think maybe you can get away with adding a footnote explaining that this fact isn’t really that significant, but deep down you know it is and you can’t get around it.

Another potential pitfall is the trek through the desert. You search and search, but you can’t find enough good material. You want to believe it’s out there, but every day is just another useless slog. (Recently this situation has been exacerbated by the government sequester, which has closed or limited access to public archives. But don’t get me started on that.) I recently spoke to an author who told me he had spent nine months researching a book and ultimately had to abandon the project because there just wasn’t enough information for a book-length treatment on his chosen topic. When this happens, it’s time to starting thinking about downsizing to an article.

True crime has one advantage when it comes to research. Trial transcripts can be a treasure trove of information. They’re not always complete, and they’re not always accurate in cases where the defendant was wrongly convicted, but they’re a good place to start. The pertinent names and places are all there even if the interpretation of the facts is suspect. Trial attorneys, after all, are like novelists. Each side is selling a narrative to an audience, the jury. But at the very least, trial transcripts show you where to start digging.

Right now I’m doing research for what I hope will become a non-fiction book. It’s a World War II story that involves a partnership between the US military and organized-crime members on both sides of the Atlantic. No crimes were committed–at least from the Allied point of view–and therefore no trials or trial transcripts. It’s also an episode in US history that the military had tried to bury, and I’m finding that they largely succeeded. It would be great to be able to interview people who participated in this alliance or even their children who heard stories from their fathers and have diaries, letters, and photos they’d be willing to share. So I intend to keep digging. I know there are good stories out there–I just have to find them. Hopefully, I’ll strike a vein as rich as Laura Hillenbrand’s.



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