We often consider the production of a work of fiction a wholly creative endeavor but, as award-nominated North Carolina author Judith Stanton* recently informed attendees of her lecture titled “Write a Better Novel, Short Story, or Poem: Strategies for Research,” the process often involves diligent, focused research. Stanton described how even the choice of a character’s name requires that the author investigate the popularity of names in the era in which the fictional text is set. Failing to research even this seemingly insignificant detail could render the work less authentic and, therefore, less compelling to the reader.
This advice was particularly relevant to those in the audience who were students in the course for which I was the Graduate Research Consultant, Professor Jeanne Moskal’s undergraduate seminar, Jane Austen: Then and Now. The focus of the course was Pride and Prejudice and the way in which it has been represented in film and print. While students spent most of the semester analyzing adaptations, parodies, and extensions of the novel, their final writing assignment afforded them the opportunity to participate in the creation of a researched representational text. They were given three creative options: (1) compose an imitation of Austen’s narrative style, (2) compose a short incident from a memoir in which the main character engages in a substantive conversation with Austen, or (3) write a short précis of Austen “fan fiction” and sketch a research question that would inform the prospective work; then find, read, and analyze one source that addresses the question posed. It was to reinforce the notion that research can and does enrich creative writing of the sort the students were assigned that Professor Moskal arranged for Stanton to speak about her own research process, and it was to share Stanton’s insights that Professor Moskal asked me to extend an invitation to any interested faculty and graduate students in the Department of English and Comparative Literature.
Stanton’s lecture offered all attendees practical advice on how to perform the research necessary to create a work of fiction that is both realistic and accurate. Stanton structured her talk around four research guidelines, each of which she supplemented with anecdotes of her own research experience. First, she advised her audience to “just google it,” with the admonition to remember that not all of what one finds on the internet is authoritative. Second, she suggested engaging in “old-fashioned research,” such as reading popular print materials or investigating blogs or forums on one’s fictional interest. Third, she emphasized the importance of conducting field research. As an example, Stanton described how she became involved in the competitive equestrian community in preparation for her latest contemporary suspense novel set in that arena. Fourth, she recommended that prospective creative writers “take it from their own lives,” detailing several instances in which she had fictionalized her own life experience in order to further the plot of a novel. Stanton followed her outline of a research methodology with a discussion of the significance of style in the composition of poetry or prose. Specifically, she explained the need to develop an aesthetic that speaks to the audience with whom the writer means to engage. To illustrate her point, Stanton described how authors of contemporary and historical romances adhere to certain stylistic conventions when producing texts for the typical romance reader. At the close of her lecture, Stanton invited questions from the audience. Several of the undergraduates took this opportunity to inquire about research strategies related to their specific creative project.
Overall, the event was a successful conclusion to Professor Moskal’s creative writing “inspiration” week, which began with a presentation by Dr. Sarah Marsh, who holds an MFA in poetry from University of Pittsburgh. In addition to lecturing about her dissertation research on Austen’s unwell heroines, Dr. Marsh offered numerous suggestions for the students in the beginning stages of their creative assignments. After listening to the two talks, the students came up with numerous funny and fascinating innovations upon Pride and Prejudice, such as: setting the action among UNC fraternities and sororities, in Manhattan, or in the Wilmington Azalea Festival; recasting Regency dialogue using idioms of the American South; and making Lizzie and Darcy’s romance interracial or same-sex. The class members also crafted research questions on such topics as common names in the Regency period, Regency social dancing, Regency gambling, and the fortunes of feminist thought in the years before Austen. Ultimately, it was these two presentations that provided the students with a foundation for developing their own creative research and writing methodology and for producing well-grounded creative works.
*Judith Stanton is the author of several novels, including Wild Indigo (1998), His Stolen Bride (1999), The Mad Marquis (2003), The Kissing Gate (2004), and A Stallion to Die For (2012). Her forthcoming works include Under a Prairie Moon (2013), A Horse Named Hero (2014), and The Deer Diaries, a poetry chapbook (2014).