When I determined this, I could already recall certain sensual details of keeping a big tank in our house when I was a kid: my dad, a troubled man in the midst of complicated personal disasters, felt that watching the fish and hearing the soothing sound of the air-bubble machine, gave a kind of therapy.
But for Make It Stay I knew I had to learn more about kinds of fish, who kept them, and why. I came home from my local library with a pile of books, and joyfully commenced to read and examine the photos.
It was heaven. A world of exotic particulars, in vivid color: all there for the mining.
But I was aware enough by then—about the pitfalls of supplying those little verifying realities—to know that I needed to keep the “research touch” light.
I’ve encountered my share of fiction whose plentiful research dragged the story down like a pair of cement shoes.
Clearly the author was having a field day, shoveling all that authentic information into his or her pages. The result, alas, reads like a lecture or infomercial. It’s death to the delicate dream of fiction—whose first and last object, Scheherazade-style, is to keep a reader beguiled, curious, enmeshed.
A very small amount of authenticating information is all that’s needed. Just enough to make a reader feel that the story knows what it’s talking about.
An example I love: after reading Martin Cruz Smith’s unforgettable novel Gorky Park, I assumed he’d lived in Moscow for years. Arkady Renko’s casual intimacy with the city’s streets and neighborhoods seemed unforced and easy, giving a reader instant confidence: we could see, smell, hear and feel the palpable dimensions of the place.
Then not long afterward during a reading, Cruz Smith confessed he had only spent two weeks in Moscow to research the book.
I never forgot that—and have tried, in all my work, to use the light-touch rule when supplying those expository details that locate, anchor, and flesh out a story. Readers instinctively supply the connective tissue (usually without knowing they’re doing so).
And when I’m asked by book groups, “How did you know so much about fish and aquaria?” I just smile and say, “I had the most wonderful time finding out.”
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.