When research get in the way:
Us writers love to research and interview for our writing, especially when writing from family history. In fact, we love our research so much that we just can’t resist the urge to throw our own actual research to the page. We end up with “research scenes” in our narrative, where we take those days we spent sorting through family archives, or visiting the library and going on museum tours or tours of the city, or interviewing family members, and plunk all that down as “scene” on the page.
The result is a draft that is exposition heavy, featuring history lessons, those research scenes, letters, diary entries and newspaper clippings. “Tell,” instead of “show.” We get the background of the story, how we found the story, rather than the story itself.
The research scene is always fascinating for us as writers. For the reader? Not so much. It’s a little like being forced to view some other family’s vacation photos. I see characters digging into research archives and interviewing to track down a family story in about every second manuscript that comes across my desk (in both fiction and memoir projects). It’s that common. And I’ve certainly done it myself.
So, what’s the solution? Rethink situation to put your protagonist into the heart of his or her conflict. But that’s tough, because we aren’t always clear on what those conflicts, or story goals, are.
Here are the questions to ask: What does the protagonist in your fiction or memoir want/need/desire? What is stopping that character? What’s challenging them? What are they willing to do to reach their goal? Working out the story goals for your memoir or fiction is hard and time consuming, but so important, as your plotline is built on these goals.
For example, in a coming of age memoir, does your character want freedom from social constraints imposed upon her by family obligations? What will she do to reach that goal? Work towards moving out on her own? But what challenges does she face to get there? Lack of money? Angry parents? Lack of job prospects? How do these conflicts build? What will she do to overcome these obstacles?
Stepping back, though, the real question to ask is: who is the story really about? Too often, even in a memoir, we create a passive protagonist who observes but doesn’t engage directly in conflict. For example, again, the character on the page researches her family history, but doesn’t do anything, or have any goals herself. The story is all in the past, happening to other people. Turning this around, you may consider writing about a specific chapter in your own life, one that is particularly full of challenges, where you faced difficulties of your own and overcame them. Sometimes the solution is to narrow your focus to one specific time period or job, say, where you met challenge after challenge, but overcame them to reach a goal.
Or, if your story is really about your grandmother, take yourself, the author, right out of the story. The reader doesn’t need to know you researched the story that was inspired by what happened to your grandmother. They just need your grandmother’s story.
But before we can find these story goals and conflicts, and rethink situation to put our protagonist into the heart of them, we need to understand what the story is about. What is the story about for you? What story do you want to tell? Fully understanding that key question will help you find focus and conflict (story goals) for your project.
And there's the biggest problem most writers face when working from real life inspirations. Our lives, and our family stories, could inspire several book projects. How do we decide what this given project is about? What we’ve talking about here, of course, is theme. Be clear on your theme and you'll have a clearer idea of what to keep and what to leave out (see link below). Theme will also help you limit your timeline and location and help you to focus on specific conflicts.
When the story lacks focus, covers too much time, and is episodic:
Our lives are episodic, so full of anecdote, events, and people, that when tackling a project inspired by real life, we’re often overwhelmed and confused over what to keep and write about, and what to let go. How to filter through all this stuff and make sense of it?
The place, again, to start is with theme. What is your story about? Having a clear sense of theme will help you sort what material fits that theme, and what doesn’t.
Once you have a grasp on theme and story goals, the next task is to find structure. Learning about structure will help you further refine your conflicts and help you map out your story so that one thing leads logically to the next in a causal chain of escalating intensity leading to a climax. In other words, a narrative arc.
First, though, be clear on the difference between anecdote and story. Anecdote is just an event, something that happened, that you might tell a colleague at work about. Story has structure, and whether you are writing fiction or memoir, your project must have structure.
One structure that is often very useful for stories inspired by real life is the virgin’s journey. It’s useful not only for women’s stories, but for anti-hero stories where a protagonist, male or female, must forge an identity at odds with societal expectations. So often the stories of our lives involve just this kind of structure. Here’s a useful guide on that one.
You'll find a ton on working out structure on the net. I’ve offered links below to help you on your way.
Finding the structure for your project takes time and experimentation. But the thing to remember when writing from real life, especially from personal stories, is it’s not just about you, nor is it for you. You’re offering something to the reader, something universal that goes beyond your personal experience. You’re telling a story. So, ask yourself, what events and details are really going to be of interest to a reader? How can you take your story and move it past the personal and into the universal? Using existing narrative structures will help you do just that.
Writers often worry about using family stories. Here’s CBC personality Jen Sookfong Lee on the subject.
When writing memoir, dialogue can be particularly tricky as, unless we had a tape recorder, we will never remember exactly what was said. Here’s Kelly S. Thompson on writing dialogue.
Here’s common mistakes writers make in writing memoir.
And here’s a useful link on which stories to tell, and what to leave out (finding the theme of your memoir).
A blog from WD on framing your memoir.
Finally, here’s Mary Kelly on some of the thornier issues about writing from real life.