Teaching Research to Creative Writers

Researched Creative Writing at VCU

Write What You Know, Research What You Don’t; How Researched Creative Writing is Taught and Practiced at VCU

“A river, amber-tinted in the shadow of its banks, purled at the army’s feet; and at night, when the stream had become of a sorrowful blackness, one could see across it the red, eyelike gleam of hostile camp fires set in the low brows of distant hills.” 

The above excerpt from The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane’s novel  about a young recruit in the Civil War is an example of how research can enliven fiction, a concept Professor Tom DeHaven knows quite a bit about in his own work and in his teaching. According to deHaven, despite the fact that Crane was born many years after the war concluded and had never experienced battle himself, his book on the disillusionment of a Union soldier was internationally renowned and known for its striking realism. This text is a prime example of researched creative writing, because while Crane himself never knew the horrors of war, he relied on secondary sources to construct a captivating story that reflected the inner perspective of a soldier fleeing combat.  

Creative writers aren’t usually thought of as researchers in the same way that non-fiction or scholarly authors are. There are no footnotes in fiction. But  careful study and investigation  helps fiction authors bring a foreign time, place, or experience to life on the page. To create a convincingly authentic story about something they haven’t personally witnessed, fiction writers rely on research to create the worlds in which their characters live. Authors can spend hours, days and weeks researching a single sentence that the reader may not consider to be vital to the plot, but which contributes to the realness of the text.

“If I can write a story that you’re reading and you hook into and you feel that you’re there and you don’t just get a description of what it was like there, you’re breathing and living in that moment, that makes all of that research worthwhile,” said John Glover, humanities research librarian at VCU.

Glover, a published writer of science fiction and research librarian and  DeHaven, began a partnership in 2012 when they hosted a workshop for graduate students working on drafting a novel. 

It was during this workshop that De Haven and Glover realized how much creative writing students stood to learn about research and researching techniques, so they decided to teach a class on writing researched fiction. The class, Advanced Fiction Writing, was taught in spring 2015 and covered a mix of creative writing skills and research techniques designed to broaden the scope of students’ work.  Their team-teaching partnership continues with Glover regularly invited into DeHaven’s classes to teach about research and storytelling, authenticity and attention to detail.

“Research for creative writers, it’s this really broad hybrid that looks like journalistic research, historic research, and advanced Googling, Things come together that’s not quite like anything else,” Glover said.  

They teach students how to use archives, online research tools, newspapers, and interviewing skills to enhance their writing. The students were each assigned a period, place or occupation and told to write a story in that context, using secondary and primary sources to inform their work. For example, one of De Haven’s graduate students was working on a crime novel, so she partnered with the Richmond Police Department to research her story by riding around in the back of a police car. This type of immersive, in-person research is valuable because it employs all their senses so that they can accurately recreate the environment and experiences in text.  

“If I were writing about someone who is a tow truck driver, it’d be way better if I had spent a few hours in a tow truck and I realized what station was on the radio, what was in between the seats. Otherwise, I would just be making this stuff out of clouds,” said De Haven.  

Professional fiction writers like Hanna Pylvainen, author of We Sinners and assistant professor of creative writing at VCU, constantly employ research techniques to enhance their writing. Pylvainen’s current book takes place in 1850s Lapland, a region of northern Europe that consists of parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland. She relies on both traditional resources and personal experiences visiting the indigenous populations of Norway to inform her novel.   

“Ideally, the research informs and helps create the book,” Pylvianen said. “Sometimes a type of research that’s more useful to me than an academic paper are often music and art, because those are going to tell me something about the mindset, they’re going to tell me about the human experience of something.”  

The typical advice young authors like Pylvainen receive is to “write what you know”, but with some concentrated research and a willingness to experience new things, writers can expand the realm of what they know to include almost any place or time.  

“It’s an opportunity to get a larger sense of how the world works, the people in it, and make your work have a larger span rather than just very, very focused on people and places that you know very well,” said De Haven.  

Written by Megan Schiffres