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Research Vs Fiction

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When I was doing my PhD, it took me forever to start writing. I kept reading papers because I felt like I didn't know enough. I wanted to know everything before I started. This approach, of course, is counter-productive, both because there's too much stuff out there and you can never know everything, and because you don't know what you need until you start writing and hit a block. Then you can go ahead and research your specific question, and it's much easier to do that. Plus you don't waste time reading papers that you think are super relevant but turn out to be not so much.

When I started writing fiction, I brought this approach with me. At first, because I'm very new at writing fiction, I was leaning towards more reading and less writing. How can I write something without reading the classics first? Which quickly turned into, how can I write anything without doing a literature degree first? But I managed to stop myself. Both because I have no intention of going back to school just now (a course or two is fine, but I've been in school for 22 of my 40 years, I need to take a little break), and because I remembered what I'd learned from my PhD. I don't need to read everything before I start writing. I want to read everything, sure, and I'm working towards that (very slowly), but I don't need to finish reading before I start writing.

But my first novel was about being a new mom in Canada. I know what that's like because I've done it. Now, working on my new book, I found myself in a difficult situation. My main character (MC) is a man in his 40s (I've never been a man). The story takes place in the outskirts of Boston (I've never been to Boston). My MC meets different people and hears their stories, and none of these people is a white Jewish immigrant. But these are the people he needs to encounter. And I'm left with this debate. How much research do I do?

On the one hand, there's some research I have to do. I have to know, roughly, what suburban life in the US looks like. But I feel like I have a good grasp of that. Also, for example, one of the people my MC is meeting is a Muslim woman. Do I need to start interviewing Muslim women, so I have a good grasp of what that's like? If the answer for this is yes, there's a lot of work to be done before I can start writing. I would need to find and talk to a bunch of Muslim women and read a lot. In the meantime, do I put the writing on hold? You're supposed to "write what you know", and maybe I don't know enough.

On the other hand, just like when I was doing my PhD, sometimes "research" is a code name for "procrastination". Sometimes you tell yourself you can't possibly start writing before you know at least some things. Otherwise you can't do this character justice. But, in fact, you can start writing. Because you're writing fiction. And as long as you write the characters as actual human beings, you should be fine. If I were to make up a fantasy world, no one would have thought I'm not doing enough research because I've never spoken to an Elf to understand what their experience is like. Reading a few books would probably be sufficient. And I have met Muslim women in my lifetime, and they are remarkably like non-Muslim women, except for different traditions and recipes, and sometimes the way they dressed.

I have no answer to this debate. Not having answers seems to be a theme with me. I decided to go ahead and write anyway. And I'm making a reading list, of course. And as always, I'll let you know how it goes.


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