Allegra Goodman has been garnering high praise from scientists for her new novel, Intuition, a tale about morality and ethics in a science lab that, the experts say, has been so meticulously researched that scientists are shocked to find it was written by a Ph.D. in English rather than one of their own.
“[I]t completely nails this world,” Dr. Jerome Groopman, an oncologist and professor of medicine at Harvard, told the New York Times in yesterday’s article about Goodman, whom the Times describes as “a 38-year-old car-pooling mother of three grade school boys and a 3-year-old girl.” How did she do it?
For starters, the Times notes, her husband, sister, mother, and a few friends are all scientists. But she didn’t simply rely on the overflow from their work to feed her own — she sought out other scientists who let her step into their world, and, once there, she spent a good deal of time, took copious notes, and let it all sink in.
Research like this is what closes the gap between a great idea and a great finished novel.
This certainly doesn’t invalidate the phrase “write what you know” for fiction writers — certainly we all have our own areas of expertise in life. But, perhaps because we live it, we may not always want to write about it. One of the joys of being a fiction writer, I think, is stepping out of one’s own world — taking an idea, as Goodman did, and finding a wonderful metaphor for exploring it. And this means, of course, that you will need to do research.
As both a fiction and nonfiction writer, I love research, especially the hands-on kind, and I’ve been fortunate to have had many opportunities to walk into others’ worlds. I’ve gone behind the scenes at science labs and hospitals; I’ve spent time in a medium-security men’s prison. I’ve interviewed an endless variety of people, from psychic mediums to leaders of the 1989 student uprisings in Tiananmen Square. In order to write knowingly about a character whose world is entirely different from your own, you must spend time with people in their natural habitats, becoming intimately aware of what they do and what’s at stake.
You may be wondering, “How do I get access to these people and places?” But before you despair, realize that you have more at your fingertips than you know. Think about your family and friends, your writers’ group, your colleagues, your neighbors: among their talents and professions, you will most likely find that one of them has the information you need, or knows someone who does. Whether you want firsthand information on how to prepare a witness for trial or want to know what it’s like to work the night shift in a psychiatric hospital, if you ask around, chances are you’ll find someone who can point you in the right direction. And even if you can’t find a connection that breaks the ice, don’t hesitate to reach out to total strangers: pick up the phone or send out an e-mail. Explain your project and see what happens. You will never know unless you ask.
And if you think people might be reluctant to have you hanging around, you will be pleasantly surprised by how welcoming people can be. I’ve found that most people love to have a little company, love to talk about what they do, and love the idea that someone finds it interesting enough to write about. Again, you can’t know until you ask. At worst, you’ll get no for an answer (and then you just ask someone else) — but at best, you could have the foundation for your next book or story.