fiction · research

Fiction + Research

Some of you know I’ve been dabbling with writing fiction for the past six months. I’ve also had the pleasure of leading a fiction writing unit of study in two different classrooms this school year. One of the things I’m noticing about myself as a fiction writer is a natural affinity for research. It’s not a far stretch for the imagination to consider research being critical for a historical fiction story; however, I’m beginning to believe research is a key for any fiction story. That said, I’m beginning to imagine how research skills can be taught via a fiction unit. (Disclaimer: I’ve not tried this in a classroom (yet), it is just some of my raw thinking about this idea.)

Why teach research through fiction? In fact, maybe you are like I used to be, and wonder why teach fiction writing at all. It’s unlikely most of our students will grow up to be fiction writers. Many more will grow up and need to know how to write a research report. So why not just teach research during a research unit? Good question.

I’ve come to believe that fiction is the genre of children. Give kids a choice in what to write and the majority of them will chose fiction. Look at the books they are reading, and again you will find many engrossed in fiction. Children love fiction. It makes sense to get behind this passion and teach skills (like research) under an interest or passion of many students.

So as I envision weaving research skills into a fiction unit of study, here are some snippets of my thinking:

  • Teach strong search engine skills. Often this skill is overlooked because the emphasis is on finding a reputable website. Although it would be nice for students to find trustworthy sites, it is not nearly as important during a fiction unit as a nonfiction unit of study.
  • Learn how to make a character more rounded. When I first began writing my story, I searched “adolescent grief” so I could have a deeper understanding of the feelings my character is experiencing. As I researched, I learned that many adolescents hear the voice of the deceased during the grieving process. This fact actually drives a major part of my story.
  • Add specifics for a stronger story. A common setting in my story is a pond with a swan. I researched swans and learned that they tend to mate for life and when one of the mates dies the other mourns. My story is of a teenager learning to cope after her mom’s death. The facts I learned about swans are woven into my story, making the theme of recovery and hope even stronger.
  • Create stronger characters. In my story, one of the characters is a fan of old movies. Last night I found myself on Google, learning about Humphrey Bogart. Even though I’ve watched some of his movies, by doing a little bit of research, I was able to find specifics to make the scene come alive.
  • Learn small nuggets of research skills. The thing I’ve really noticed about myself as a researcher for writing fiction is it happens in small doses. This was what really pushed me to begin thinking about teaching research through fiction writing with young writers. Research often seems SO BIG. There is SO MUCH to teach about being an effective researcher. It is overwhelming to both teachers and students. What if we introduced some research skills during a fiction unit of study? Then our students could learn research skills bit by bit instead of feeling like they have to learn everything about research in a single unit of study.

I’m excited about hearing some of your thoughts on this idea. Please don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

7 thoughts on “Fiction + Research

  1. Again, what an appropriate post for my life right now. It’s like you’re in my thoughts…creepy but cool!

    As I’ve said before I’ve made a committment to seriously write the book I have floating around my mind for years now. However, before I started I researched. My story is a total work of fiction but written from a young girl’s perpsective. I’m far from being a young girl and although I haven’t forgotten what my teen years were like I still wanted to learn more about teen life today.
    As I was doing this I thought this is something I should share with my adult writing club! I should share with them that even though we’re all working on fiction pieces we need to refer to some research on the people, the towns, the time our writing is based on.
    This is an excellent post. THANKS!


  2. When I started reading your post, I immediately thought, “I’ve tossed this around before- have the students do some research and write historical fiction.” I was wrong. I’ve never thought about explicitly teaching the research that goes into ALL types of fiction. Now that I think of it, this is exactly what I saw Nancie Atwell do during my internship–a student was writing a story that involved a conversation with a psychiatrist. So, she gave him some psychiatrists’ phone numbers (parents of other students at the school) to call and interview in order to make the psychiatrist’s voice in the story more authentic. It never ceases to amaze me what I might find when I visit your posted thoughts! I am definitely making this part of next year’s plan.


  3. It helps so much to be a practicing writer even as one is a writing teacher, I think. It is in the trying out for ourselves that we find what works, how it works, and so on. That last part about the research it takes to write fiction is so often overlooked – that’s what lends the writing authenticity.


  4. Hi, I think this is a great idea! There is no doubt that children prefer the fiction genre. It is brilliant to incorporate research skills in a way that works best for them and what they enjoy. If you do get to try this out in classroom be sure to share!


  5. Ruth,
    What are your thoughts about kids writing fantasy vs. realistic fiction. I feel like all of my writing mentors say to have them write realistic fiction because it’s easier for them. However, most of my fifth graders (boys in particular) are Fantasy readers. What they know best is Fantasy and what they want to write is Fantasy. I usually give special permission to those students who have a strong Fantasy reading history in my room, but I’m wondering if I’m doing the others a disservice. What do you think?


  6. The way your experiences as a writer influence your thinking as a teacher of writing is wonderful! I love reading about how your growth as a writer nurtures your professional practice–please keep sharing with us!


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