Why Great Research Enables Great Writing

In my last narrative nonfiction post, I suggested starting with "the big question" to form the backbone and roadmap for your story. Once you've got that, it's time to learn everything you can about the context, history, events and people that are touched by that question. The ability to weave a compelling nonfiction narrative -- recreating place and character as a novelist would do -- is limited only by the depth and breadth of the research.

If you don't have the goods in terms of research, then the most lyrical and elegant writer in the world will flop at nonfiction. Conversely, superb research will make even workmanlike, unadorned prose a compelling read.

I learned and adapted my research skills from my work in daily newspapers, but that was just a starting point. Narrative nonfiction requires digging deeper and differently:

Interviews: The primary means for recreating scenes, conversations and actions is through interviewing those who were witnessed or took part in them. These interviews have to go far beyond the usual journalistic basics (the famous "5 Ws" - who, what, where, when and why) and delve into minute details -- the weather, the driving conditions, what was in the news that day, street scenes, what people were wearing, what a character was doing or thinking not only during key events, but before and after. Was a character thinking about an argument with a spouse or complaining about the boss right before witnessing a murder? Think of what novelists can do in creating setting, character, context and background, how they can walk a character on stage with drama, detail and insightful revelations that capture readers' sympathy, interest or outrage even before the main action begins. Nonfiction writers must do the same -- and the primary tool for achieving this novelistic effect of getting inside story and character is pulling insane levels of details from interviews. And re-interviews. And interviews with multiple witnesses to the same events. Hours and hours of them.

Documents: Many subjects come with a useful paper trail. Nonfiction crime stories are particularly rife with documents: court files, transcripts, police reports and other materials often contain riveting details, including transcripts of whole conversations and interrogations. These can be used as direct source material and also to corroborate your interview subjects (or reveal their lies). And crime stories are not the only subjects that can generate legal documents. In our litigation-happy nation, virtually every topic you may want to write about ends up sooner or later in court (my books on the evolution wars, juvenile justice, life and death in a neonatal intensive care unit, the exploits of eco barons and Wal-Mart's unlikely green revolution all benefited from forays to courthouses, physical and virtual. Outside of the legal world, and depending on the nonfiction subject, there are arrays of useful documents to consider when delving into characters or events: published research, letters, speeches, corporate annual reports, resumes, newspaper clippings, school yearbooks, city council agendas, YouTube videos -- you get the idea. Regardless of your subject, there will almost always be some documentary materials related to it.

Immersion: Interviews are essential and documents can be invaluable, but there is nothing like being present for the events you’re writing about or, at the very least, becoming intimately familiar with the world and culture that your characters inhabit. Browse this magazine piece, "You Belong to Judge Dorn Now," in which I describe morning in juvenile court, drawn from my book, No Matter How Loud I Shout. No interview would ever get you this kind of immediacy, this spontaneity. You have to put in the time watching, listening, observing. Then you have to chase down the people you observed and interview them, corner them in the hallway, get their phone numbers, do the legwork. Wherever possible, I think the best nonfiction writing finds a way to be there. Immerse yourself in your subject. Wheedle your way inside.

Historical research: Every setting, event and character has a history, and it can provide a wonderful context and richness to your story. My true crime book, Mississippi Mud, was set in Biloxi, with corrupt cops and politicians as important characters/antagonists. A little digging at the local library and the historical society showed that there was a rich legacy of corruption and deception dating back centuries, that there were congressional hearings on it in the 1950s -- a fascinating history that informed the present. I looked into the history of neonatology for my book Baby ER and I found out that from 1900 through World War II, the absolute best neonatal care for premature babies anywhere in the country could be found at an exhibit on Coney Island where visitors paid a quarter apiece to see the miracle babies. Just fascinating material. Find the juicy history that informs the present in your narrative