Novel research is a portal to invention.
Novel research is a heightened form of living.
Novel research is scholarly. It camps out in libraries and steeps in gathered knowledge. It is ravenous, intensive, and nerdy AF.
Nerdiness is radical.
Nerdiness is a birthright. For centuries, straight white owning-class men have propagated the narrative that the life of the mind does not belong to all of us. Claiming our nerdiness means claiming the lives of our own minds.
Nerdiness is erotic. The eros of nerdiness arises when you least expect it, natural and pure, sparking from the rub of text against consciousness, the explosion of marginalia, the euphoric onrush of ideas, the thrill of thought crashing wavelike over thought.
Novel research happens through the intellect.
Novel research happens through the body, too. Every sensory faculty can be engaged in the great gathering, the dance toward creation. Actors engage in method acting; we can engage in method noveling. We gather scents, sounds, textures, tastes, and sights; we listen to what our bodies have to say.
Novel research takes infinite forms.
It is not necessary to know where to begin. Begin everywhere. Begin anywhere. Begin with your burning questions and don’t stop.
Novel research will not take the same shape in any two writers’ hands. There is no single right way.
I have been researching novels continuously for twenty-one years—most of my adult life—and to me it is more than a practice. It is as vast and intimate as breathing, as the experience of being hungry for the world.
For me, as a queer Latina immigrant, as a lesbian and mother and genderqueer person, it is a matter of survival to write against silence, to seek to expand the narrative texture of the world so as to be able to more fully exist, so as to affirm a broader landscape of existence than the dominant culture and the publishing industry were designed to include. In order to do that—in order to reconjure how things were, or might have been, for people and communities too long erased, and in order to connect such stories to who and what we are today, and might become—I need to research; I need to dive deep.
A few examples of the shape research has taken, for me: I’ve gathered books on three continents, in libraries and used bookstores and kindly historians’ homes; read piles of books in English and Spanish and Italian (barely, badly); chased a particular out-of-print first-person testimony for almost two years before finally getting it on a two-day loan from a scholar, as a favor, so I could photocopy the whole book to keep on hand; interviewed scholars; interviewed survivors; interviewed ordinary people; listened to strangers who volunteered secrets; engaged authenticity readers, particularly when writing characters with a marginalized identity I do not share; walked down streets or on beaches and imagined their scents or sounds decades before; walked down streets and dreamed; gazed into old photographs and dreamed; listened to relevant music and dreamed; taken violin lessons; taken dance lessons; engaged in sex that refracted the possibilities of various characters’ intimate lives.
(A note on that last method, involving sex: such research should only be attempted with the knowledge and enthusiastic consent of any and all partners—a full and genuine collaboration on the adventure and the inquiry, a deep and joyful yes from everyone involved—for nothing, nothing in the world, matters more than enthusiastic consent. Certainly not your novel. Certain canonized dead male writers might say otherwise, but they are wrong.)
Research is not separate from writing; they are blended rivers of experience.
Research is not separate from living; they are blended rivers of experience.
Novel research is as deeply intellectual as it is intuitive. There is no binary here. At its best, novel research queers the false binary between intellect and intuition.
Our own real lives are research, too. Yes, even the hard parts—especially those. For novelists can use everything, even the most terrible wounds, as raw material. As a knowing or a wondering to infuse into creation.
You know that time when you felt you’d be torn apart by the pain, when you thought you wouldn’t survive but then you did? You can use that, too. Is that research, or would it be more fitting to call it something else? You decide. It’s up to you. What matters is that you are still alive, still writing. Perhaps the raw force of your pain could generate enough power to light up a town? Let it light your fictional world instead.
Inevitably, though, novel research brings us to the lip of a great paradox: we owe veracity to our subjects, and yet, it is by taking imaginative leaps that we can make the story come alive and therefore be true.
For example, for my fifth novel, The President and the Frog, I wrote a protagonist inspired by former Uruguayan president José Mujica, steeped in facts about his revolutionary youth and how he survived brutal political imprisonment to go on to lead his nation, as well as facts about the broader sociopolitical context around him. But my book is not a biography. In fact, the manuscript grew wild, unruly, spilling into fabulist dimensions. Fiction draws on fact but does not hew to it in its exploration of the truth. In my case, in the case of this novel, for my unnamed protagonist in an unnamed country, my burning questions were not about one actual man’s life but about how we survive and replenish our spirits in a hostile world—how we heal, how we dare and dream, how we face ourselves in secret moments that become fulcrums of our own power and potential, what such secret moments can catalyze for us as we shape the future. Facts abounded, and I gathered and gathered, but it was my burning questions that served as compass.
For a novelist, research leads nowhere without imagination.
Imagination is not just whimsical, as people sometimes say. It is its own intellectual faculty, that, like any muscle, strengthens with use.
How do research and imagination meet? How do we know when to engage each faculty, when to bring which energy to the fore, when to draw on documented realities and when to be inventive?
I’ve drawn on many metaphors over the years to try to speak to this: research and imagination are a braiding of strands; a weaving of colors; a merging of rivers; a stirring of ingredients in the creative cauldron. Each of these images captures one part of the creative process yet also limits others, leaning as it does on specific gestures.
Therefore, I now offer this: these two forces, research and imagination, join erotically within your mind, like lovers. Let your mind be a bed in a seedy motel. Or the floor, the wall, the desk, the whole room. Knowing and wondering. Learning and forging. Let them be queer lovers, for this erotic joining should be freed from heteronormative scripts. There should be no constraining your creative faculties to rigid roles that dull the edges of what’s possible. Let the radiant forces of your own thinking touch and move in a space free of binaries; find your own prismatic and unique eros of mind; let the dance of your research and imagination be as fluid and absolutely wild as you can let it be, for in this place—the place within from which you create—you are and must be free.
It is good to free and cultivate our own eros of mind. It is even better to do so in service of visions larger than ourselves, in service of art, in service of a more just and beautiful world for our communities and generations to come.
“Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives,” said Audre Lorde, “can give us the energy to pursue genuine change.”
Gather. Listen. Read. Wonder. Put a word on the page. Then another. Make a sentence. Do it again. Write stories into being from what you’ve gathered and also from your dreaming. Write against silence and toward new worlds wanting to be born. Do it your way. Trust your vision. Trust the long haul. Trust the inimitable eros of your mind.
Rumpus original art by Eva Azenaro Acero.