Bookstore staff and bloggers often ask, “Did you travel to Afghanistan to research your book?” Most seem disappointed when I suggest that imagination can produce a better tale on literacy, parenting, women’s rights and fear of globalization. As a journalist and mystery writer, I’m a huge fan of the U.S. government and its many resources. But I’m also wary about over-reliance on government-packaged research.
Some stories require extensive research. Others depend on life experiences and larger truths. Novelists who enter into research relationships must recognize that government’s highest levels will resist the stories of the renegades within their ranks. The most thrilling stories, like Argo, are about those who defy orders and follow their consciences.
This is not to say that writers should ignore government research, but they must use care in selecting details. The CIA World Factbook, with its assessments of national economies, people and trade, is a rich resource, as are the U.S. State Department fact sheets.
Some research assistance goes beyond the statistics. Consider the Entertainment Industry Liaison of the Central Intelligence Agency: “For years, artists from across the entertainment industry – actors, authors, directors, producers, screenwriters, and others – have been in touch with the CIA to gain a better understanding of our intelligence mission.” The site suggests the liaison is “in a position to give greater authenticity to scripts, stories, and other products in development” and that “To better convey that reality, the CIA is ready for a constructive dialogue with a broad range of creative talents.” The Pentagon simply provides contact info for “Producing Motion Pictures, Television Shows, Music Videos.”
My book, Fear of Beauty focuses on a woman desperate to learn how to read after the death of her son on the day he was supposed to attend school. Other villagers point to the death as an accident or blame troops and aid workers at a military outpost in the area. More government research would have shifted the plot’s emphasis away from the isolated villagers, mostly illiterate, but hard-working and skilled at growing diverse crops.
To write my story, I had to shed my knowledge about global politics, security and modern technology – and instead focus on everyday routines and the worrying influences of globalization. The Koran frames the characterization of Afghan protagonists, and the small U.S. Army Ranger Handbook, July 1992, frames the philosophy of my military protagonist. I also reflected on childhood memories of summers spent on a farm; my experiences as a mom, including crawling into a cave with my son; and observations of vulnerability as a literacy tutor for adults and middle-school students.
Fiction goes beyond the reporting of facts. Writers can be obsessed with small details and miss the larger truths. As Stephen King once suggested, an author can become “too busy listening to other voices to listen as closely as he should have to the one coming from inside.”
Susan Froetschel is also the author of three other mystery novels. In her books, she focuses on mother-son relationships and strives for suspense by developing characters who disagree with public policies that most others take for granted. She taught writing classes at Yale and magazine writing and literary journalism at Southern Connecticut State University. In 2005, she joined the staff of YaleGlobal Online, an independent, public-service magazine. She lives in Michigan.