Cynthia Dettman:  Author

The Role of Research in a Novel


I was delighted today to read some of Barbara Kingsolver’s words about writing and about two of my favorite Kingsolver novels, Lacuna and The Poisonwood Bible.  (Take a look at her wonderful website.  She has answered many questions about her approaches.) In those books, she has written about cultures, peoples and historical periods outside of her direct experience.  To replace this knowledge, she does a LOT of research before and during the writing, she says.  This has included multiple hands-on trips to Africa, to Mexico, and to Asheville, along with tons of books and historical research aplenty.

“The writing of fiction is a dance between truth and invention,” says Kingsolver.  These simple words are a great antidote to my frequent periods of self-doubt, when I wonder what I’m doing in India right now and what I’m trying to accomplish.  It’s a good reminder that I am permitted as a storyteller and writer to make things up!  And “truth”, including local color, textures, smells, language, and traditions are equally important.  I have placed my novel in a specific period:  2017 and 2018 in Tamilnadu, South India.  I do continue to ask myself:  Am I asking the right questions, going to the right places?  To what extent is my research here important?  And in the end, to what extent will my novel rely primarily on my ability to move, persuade, and engage the reader, including both Indian and Western readers?

Kingsolver doesn’t specifically address cross-cultural writing.  I believe her characters have all been white people, even if they have been in “foreign” settings.  I, on the other hand, am a white woman who has the audacity to attempt the inhabitation of brown characters.   Yes, I grew up in India, but as the daughter of white missionaries and that was 50 years ago!  And this is a time that is fraught with questions of privilege, identity, and stereotyping.   I believe it’s all the more important for me to plant myself back here in modern Tamilnadu and talk to lots of people and listen and observe.

It’s an interesting dance.  Do I want to place my characters in real neighborhoods and real schools?  Or will it be best to place them in imaginary but believable settings instead?  I’m leaning in the latter direction.  If I get too specific, I’ll make errors.  But the bottom line?  I must create settings, scenes, dialogue and characters who are believable, authentic, and not stereotypical.  And I hope that my book will be enjoyed by Western and Eastern readers as well.

Whew- a big but fascinating task for this 68 year old, lucky, retired woman who has the time and resources to return to India, to ask all these questions, and fully engage my own language skills and imagination at this stage of life.  I am indeed blessed.


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