Deb Caletti on the Practical Magic of Research

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Deb Caletti is the author of many books for adults and teens, including Honey, Baby, Sweetheart, a finalist for the National Book Award, and A Heart in a Body in the World, a Printz Honor Book. Here, Caletti describes the vital role of research in her writing process and the joy of uncovering unexpected facts that enrich her novels.

Most of us in the business of writing, publishing, and selling books share a beautiful belief: books are magic. Books have this incredible power to change lives, we know. They offer understanding, compassion, and connection, while at the same time, sweeping us through portals where there are dinosaurs and planets and people both flawed and triumphant.

The act of writing those books is often apportioned its own version of enchantment, too. Credit is given to an unseen force, which causes the characters to act on their own, against the will of the writer, even, or to a muse, that wispy, romantic source of inspiration. But I’ve found that there’s another kind of magical entity at work when I write, something that offers a particular, practical magic.

Research.

Oh, I can hear the groans, brought on by lingering memories of term papers and dissertations and a bunch of other weighty have-to’s. I know, I know. Research has a bad reputation—boring, a slog. While a muse brings to mind a chiffon-draped pixie, flying delicately over one’s shoulder, research only makes you think of a dull, lengthy trek over hard terrain, wearing old work boots and a sensible jacket. But give me work boots over chiffon any day. Give me the diligent, reliable magic of research, please.

And reliable it is. Trust me on this. After writing 20 books in 21 years, I can most definitely say that research has shown up for me every time. Actually, it’s done more than merely shown up—research has offered a gift, a special little gift, to each book. It lays revelations at my feet (or, rather, my fingertips), ones that seem to come packaged in shiny paper with a bow on top. Research is my mysterious helper, unfailingly delivering unexpected and profound surprises that always bring a rich layer or added meaning to my work. While research may not be a floaty, dream-like being, it’s a respectful teacher, a Mary Poppins, bringing order and delight. Bringing wonder.

No, friends. All of this screen time I’ve had has not brought on some UFO-like visions. These little gifts—they’re real. Years ago, while I was writing The Last Forever, for example, research handed me a little nugget that was so right, that it felt meant. In the book, as Tessa and her father are struggling to come to grips with the death of her mother, she, her family, a boy, and a bunch of librarians go on a mission to bring the seeds of her mother’s rare plant to the real-life seed vault in the Arctic. It’s a story about loss, grief, and the need for safety and protection, and about the ways that certain things really do last. In my research I discovered astonishing facts about seeds, and about the elaborate protection of the icy vault, where varieties of every seed are kept hidden in the event of global catastrophe. But I also discovered one perfect detail: in Longyearbyen, where the vault is located, death is forbidden. It’s actually against the law. During the influenza pandemic of 1917–1920, freezing temperatures kept the virus alive inside a body, so officials declared that dying was not permitted in the town. This was a gem for the book and for Tessa, that in this exact place, dying was declared to be just wrong.

Similar bits of information arrived to deepen the meaning of A Heart in a Body in the World, about Annabelle, who crosses the U.S. on foot after a terrible and traumatic act, perfectly fitting facts about our miles of arteries, and about animal hearts, ones that can be seen through transparent bodies, or injured and then repaired over time. It happened in The Nature of Jade, about a girl who suffers from anxiety and watches the elephants at her zoo, who is struggling to separate from her mom, and who meets a boy with a baby. That time, I learned about the deep maternal bonds of elephant families, and how elephants could leave and then recognize kin years later. These were unexpected finds that added richness.

But it happened in the most extravagant and narrative-changing way with One Great Lie, my newest novel, about a young aspiring writer named Charlotte who travels to Venice, Italy, for a summer writing program, led by an esteemed and charismatic male author. While there, Charlotte is forced to confront some dark truths about the history of powerful men—and about the determination of creative girls—going all the way back to the Renaissance. Since the story is about the art vs. artist question, and about the dynamics of whom we label as “genius” and why, I knew when I began the book that I’d also have Charlotte investigate a mystery about her long-ago Venetian relative, a female poet, thought to have been the true author of a very famous poem. But when I myself did the investigation into female poets of that time, one bit of astonishing research led to more and more of it, as I encountered people I never knew existed: the feminist writers of 500 years ago. Until I began to delve, I had absolutely no idea that fierce and courageous women (many of them teens) were writing and publishing bold and controversial feminist works during the Renaissance. I had no idea, even, that feminism went back that far. Those women began to assert their presence in the book, becoming vignettes at every chapter heading, too. It was an awful and shocking realization, that we were still writing about the same subjects they were back then, and that realization, and the women themselves, pressed into the pages like the signet rings in the story, pressing into wax to verify the sender’s identity.

These moments, occurring again and again, are one of the reasons I don’t outline. I want to allow for the discoveries that research brings along the way. Because discoveries will come. Whatever is knocking around in my subconscious merges with the delicious details that research uncovers, and, in a mystical yet no-nonsense alchemy, a book forms. I’ve come to trust it. What this experience reminds me of most is the way we, as readers, can often discover the very thing we need when we wander the aisles of a library, or travel through our stack of unread books. There it is, somehow. A line, an idea, a story—the perfect, necessary prize we weren’t even aware we were seeking.

Story is magic, of course. And facts are magic, too. History is. Tomes and tomes of both, magic. Whether it’s a novel, or nonfiction, whether as a reader or a writer, books reveal. They connect. They tell the truth. They quietly whisper, Here’s what needs to be said.

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