Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What Memoir and Thriller Have in Common

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.


  1. Good point here, Annette. As you said, you will know you've done it right and that's worth a whole lot. Try to fudge and it may very well come back to bite you. I think memoirists need to be careful, also, not to embellish those facts too much. It's tempting for some to do that just to make the story more exciting. Not a good idea.

  2. Excellent advice. I find the words come more easily when I place a story in a city or location I have actually visited.

  3. Great advice, Annette. When I was working on my memoir, I went back to Camp Pendleton in California, and back to Camp Lejeune and the New River Air Station in North Carolina to research and rekindle memories.

  4. Nancy - you're right, embellishing is dangerous.
    BJ - exactly, it's much easier to render a scene when you know the setting!
    Tracy - it's interesting, isn't it, to go back? I've been back to my grandparents' hometown several times. Even though I wasn't going back into my own past, I was going back into theirs, and I could not have envisioned their lives without doing so.