I love the Wall Street Journal’s weekend column Word Craft in which prominent writers share their insights. This weekend’s resonated with me because thriller author Frederick Forsyth talked about research. He titled it "How to Keep a Thriller Real." Now why would a thriller author’s insights matter to a memoirist? Well, I could retitle this: "How to Ensure that a Memoir is Real."
The goal of fiction is to make the story seem real and possible. For that a novelist needs to research so that, for instance, s/he knows what life on a fishing trawler in the North Sea might be like. Therefore, someone like Forsyth goes and chats up Scottish fishing skippers. As a memoirist, you might be writing about life as a fishing skipper because it’s your life, so you know it. Or you’re writing about your grandfather’s life as a skipper in which case you’re basing it on what he told you. Why research? Because you still need to get your facts right. In the age of the Internet, when everybody can research just about anything, you better have checked up on everything anybody else can find, or you will lose credibility as a writer. And that is especially deadly for a memoir writer.
Facts are facts, and if you get those wrong, you’re cooked. So, if you can, visit that fishing trawler’s harbor and soak in the scene, check which way it really faces, and where the wind usually blows from. It will help you write any scene taking place in that harbor. Or walk the streets of your childhood to see which way you need to turn to get from the church to the school. If you can’t travel there, check old maps. Be sure to use the street names as they were in the time you are writing about because they can change. If you can travel, take as many pictures as possible.
If you’re writing your grandfather’s story, it still behooves you to talk to other skippers to get their impressions, and to verify your source’s reliability. It’s also a great way to get, as Forsyth tells us, anecdotes that will enliven your story.
A whole lot of research might end up being only one sentence in your manuscript but you will rest easier if you know you got it right. And readers who know what you’re talking about will delight in your ability to capture their life as well.