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  • Writer's pictureEvan Griffith

Research for Fiction—or, Pretending to Be a Scientist

Research is often associated with writing nonfiction, and for good reason. I certainly do a ton of research for each of my nonfiction projects. For biographies like SECRETS OF THE SEA and WILD AT HEART, this involves a deep dive into the lives of my historical subjects, as well as a broader exploration of the era and culture that shaped the subject’s world.

Annotating Simard's FINDING THE MOTHER TREE

But many authors, myself included, also do quite a bit of research for fiction. This is especially important when writing characters who have particular areas of expertise, whether it’s Peter and Tommy’s familiarity with Florida wildlife in MANATEE SUMMER or Holly’s encyclopedic knowledge of trees in THE STRANGE WONDERS OF ROOTS. In order to write these characters authentically, I have to learn at least some of what they would know about their favorite topics. In other words, I have to get on their level! What does this research look like? Typically, it falls into a few categories…

 


  • Talking to Experts: Several scenes in MANATEE SUMMER take place at a rehabilitation center, a place where injured manatees are cared for until they can (hopefully) be released back into the wild. I wanted these scenes to feel realistic and grounded, so I interviewed a wildlife biologist who works at one of Florida’s largest manatee rehabilitation centers. I also visited a couple of these centers, which leads me to…


Visiting Florida's Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park
  • Travel: MANATEE SUMMER draws a lot on my memories of growing up in central Florida, but when I decided to write this book, I’d been away from Florida for many years. Early in the drafting process, I revisited Florida to not only swim with manatees and visit rehabilitation centers but also to immerse myself in the sensory world of a Florida summer—the heat, the humidity, the unique flora and fauna that can only be found there. While STRANGE WONDERS takes place in a highly fictional town, the setting was inspired by New England towns I’ve visited throughout my life. While drafting, I explored small-town Vermont for additional inspiration.


  • Direct Observation: This one can be linked to travel, though it doesn’t have to be. When writing about a particular animal, ecosystem, or natural phenomenon, it’s so helpful to witness your subject firsthand—to study it like a naturalist. But when in-person observation isn’t possible (or safe!), there are lots of livestreams you can use to observe animals, albeit generally in artificial settings. The Monterey Bay Aquarium runs several live cams, for instance.

 

Whether I’m working on fiction or nonfiction, I truly love the research process. Because I often write about science, the research is a treat for the part of me that has always wanted to be a scientist, allowing me to step into that world for a while—to pretend to be a scientist (and, often, to connect with amazing real scientists along the way). It also invites me to feel curiosity, discovery, and wonder—the same feelings that I want to capture on the page and in the hearts of my young characters.

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