Writing Q&A 7: Researching topics; short-story lengths
Published: October 11, 2006
|Do you have any tips on researching? I'm looking into dendrochronology, and I'm having a hard time finding out more about forensic botany without spending hundreds for books I'm not sure would help.|
One of the fiction writer's greatest tools is imagination. Yet there are times when research can help create a convincing plot, a believable world or an authentic character. Sometimes the information can be as easy to find as renting a documentary, checking out a book at the library or searching the Web. For simple inquiries, such as finding a picture of St. Louis' Gateway Arch or learning the general climate conditions in Rwanda's Nyungwe Forest, this might be as far as you need to go.
Some ideas, however, demand a more intensive search. No matter how obscure, there is a source that has the information you need. Skeptical? Mount Horeb, Wis., boasts a Mustard Museum that explores everything mustard, including varieties around the world, mustard history and the evolution of dispensers. Need more? The Dictionary of Newfoundland English, edited by G.M. Story, details this unique Canadian English dialect. (In fact, Annie Proulx used it while writing The Shipping News.) And the New York Historical Society has a collection of approximately 10,000 menus that Arnold Shircliffe, a charter member of the Chicago Wine and Food Society, collected during his lifetime. The topic you're researching is bound to have a passionate advocate.
The key, of course, is finding that source. Let's take dendrochronology, which, for those of you not in the know, is the practice of dating events and climate changes based on the study of growth rings in trees. Turning to general sources can dredge up great leads. A quick Web search brought up Henri D. Grissino-Mayer's "Ultimate Tree-Ring Web Pages," including an extensive list of links to dendrochronology-related organizations, as well as an invitation to contact him.
Use these sources to create a list of names of people and associations that focus on your topic. A polite e-mail or phone call, along with genuine enthusiasm and patience, have a good chance of being rewarded. Many people enjoy talking about their experience, and this one-on-one exchange can be ideal for the writer, as it allows the opportunity to ask some of those more obscure questions. If those you contact don't have quite what you're looking for, they may be able to refer you to sources that do.
While we're on the topic, don't forget the highly effective research strategy of doing it yourself. While it might not make sense to become a dendrochronolgist to write your novel, a writer looking to capture the cadence of Seattle might find a trip to the city does just the trick. If you have a character who hang glides, an afternoon of your own suspended from hang straps can give you the language, thrill and physical sensation of the practice.
Of course, doing it yourself isn't always possible or desirable. Studio 54, the legendary New York City disco, had its heyday in the late '70s and early '80s, and that can't be recaptured, despite the exact replica built in Las Vegas. And you may be too nervous to go deep-sea diving. Or too claustrophobic for spelunking. Tracking down people well versed in these topics, live or in print, can give you just the palpable details you need to blend with your imagination.
|How long is a short story?|
This is a good question and not one that's easily answered. The fact is that there are many definitions of what makes a story short. Perhaps the most widely known comes from Edgar Allan Poe, who said a short story should be of a length that can be read in one sitting. Translating that into a word count is a bit difficult, but here's what I've gathered from my own reading and writing experience. Generally, short stories tend to fall under 15,000 words, with many in the range of 4,000-7,000 words. These numbers are not absolutes. Short stories have come in at a whopping 20,000 words and under a slim 1,000 words. (Anything under 1,000 words is often referred to as a short-short or flash fiction.)
Perhaps a more useful way to think of the short story is in terms of scope rather than length. A novel might cover an entire family's slow crumbling, such as Joyce Carol Oates' We Were the Mulvaneys, where the family members' individual reactions to a violence against the daughter causes a rift that can't be mended. A short story, on the other hand, would cover just one facet of a larger conflict. This happens in John Updike's "Gesturing," which follows a married couple as they begin to settle into their separation. A more narrow scope, focusing on one main aim, is going to produce a shorter work of fiction.
And that's where your attention might be most productive: finding the focus in your short story and using only the words that are absolutely necessary to convey it in full.
Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin, and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.
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