Using Research in Fiction—an Interview with Greg Leitich Smith (and a giveaway!)

Greg Leitich Smith at the Texas Memorial Museum. The big fish is called a Xiphactinus.

It’s true that non-fiction books require copious amounts of research. But this is not so with fiction, right?

Wrong.

Research is something all fiction authors must learn to do, and something that author and research aficionado Greg Leitich Smith has mastered. His debut novel, Chronal Engine, released earlier this year from Clarion Books. Today we talk with him about his book and…you guessed it…research. Here’s a short blurb about the novel:

When Max, Emma, and Kyle are sent to live with their reclusive grandfather for the summer, they’re dismayed to learn he thinks there’s a time machine in the basement.

But when Grandpa Pierson predicts the exact time of his own heart attack, and when Emma is kidnapped by what can only be a time traveler, they realize he was telling the truth about the Chronal Engine. And if they want their sister back, they’ll have to do it themselves.

So Max and Kyle, together with their new friend Petra, pack up their grandpa’s VW and follow Emma and the kidnapper back in time, to Late Cretaceous Texas, where the sauropods and tyrannosaurs roam. Can the trio find Emma and survive the hazards of the Age of Dinosaurs, or are they, too, destined to become part of the fossil record?

Welcome to the blog, Greg!

Since we’re talking about research today, did you do any research for Chronal Engine? Ha ha, I’m kidding! Of course you did. You must have done a ton of research, since this book is chock-full of information for readers. Can you share a little bit about your research process?

The research process is/was sort of never-ending. I started out looking at nonfiction picture books and encyclopedias (National Geographic, Dorling-Kindersly, etc.), so I could get a feel for what was out there. Very early on, I realized I had to narrow it down to one specific time and place and discovered that Late Cretaceous Texas was ideal for my story. (Contemporary Texas is home to some very famous Cretaceous dinosaur footprints and Cretaceous Texas was one of the few places where T.rex and sauropods co-existed. And T.rex and sauropods are some of my favorite dinosaurs).

Once I decided on a time and place, and had enough of a “base,” I did more intensive research. I went to some of the university press volumes on dinosaurs, college texts, and some of the books written by and for professional paleontologists. A lot of professional journals that report cutting edge, up-to-the-minute research are available on line, as well, so I made ample use of those.

Ultimately, I collated it all into a massive document of about 90,000 words and 3000+ footnotes…

Whoa. That’s a lot of footnotes.

Well, the book doesn’t read the like a dissertation on paleontology, so how did you distill the research enough to share so much of it in the book but still keep the story moving forward?

I think the key thing here is to realize that the research is for the background, however extensive it may be. Ninety-nine percent of my dinosaur and time travel research was not dealt with in the book, but as the author, it was nice to know it was there.

As a writer, I think the way to look at it is that you have to do enough research to learn all the things you don’t know you don’t know. Of course, the people in the world of your story will know them (or won’t care), so there’s often no reason to go into them in great detail.

You were also dealing with the science of paleontology and the science fiction of time travel in this book. How did your research help you combine these two into one believable story?

Time travel is one of those things that probably violates the laws of physics, but has been such a part of the science fiction writers’ toolkit that there are countless tropes and “rules” of how it would or should play out. And many of them are either inconsistent or don’t make any sense at all. (The butterfly effect, for example, or time travel stories in which you can change the past but then remember what things were like before the change.) Although, that’s one of the things that makes time travel fun.

But because I was doing it “straight,” with an actual honest-to-goodness time machine, I wanted to ensure that it made sense (insofar as it can). Basically, this means that you have to be consistent with your rules. Work them out in advance and make sure you, as a writer know what they are, even if the characters don’t. And then apply them (discovering what the rules are can be part of what moves the plot forward and some people argue that in science fiction, it has to be essential to moving the plot forward).

With regard to the paleo stuff, even though there’s a lot of the science of dinosaurs, I treated it more like what we tend to think of as fantasy. And in fantasy, there’s the time honored trope of the “expert” who doles out the knowledge as necessary. Like Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. With Max in Chronal Engine, there’s the added complication that he isn’t actually an expert, he looks at it all with a sense of wonder, and people don’t necessarily listen to him.

I was also impressed with how you were able to plop people into this world of dinosaurs and make it feel realistic. Since setting is an integral part of this book, how were you able to accurately portray a place that hasn’t been around for millions of years and that no one has actually seen?

Thank you. I went into the project wanting to ensure that I had created a fully realized “world” to make it feel as real to visitors as, say, Middle Earth.

But I also wanted to make it as realistic as possible, like good historical fiction. Which meant that I had to create (or re-create) an entire Cretaceous ecosystem. Consequently, almost half of the research document deals with elements of the environment other than dinosaurs: it relates to the ancient bugs, lizards, fish, shrubs, trees, crustaceans, and the like.

A surprising number of the plants and bugs and other biota that were around in the Cretaceous are still around today, and I think that helped ground it. I didn’t need to really describe a redwood forest in great detail because most people already know what one looks like.

When I was writing the actual scenes, I thought about how I would describe things if it wasn’t dinosaurs in Cretaceous Texas, but, say, lions in the Serengeti which, up close, would be significantly different than at the zoo or on nature documentaries. What kind of things would my characters notice and what would they have to (or even think to) describe?

Clearly you are passionate about paleontology, so it must be easy to lose yourself in the research. But what do you do about topics you aren’t so passionate about? How do you keep researching the not-so-fun stuff?

I confess to being kind of a researcher at heart, so if I’m given the chance to look into something I don’t know a lot about — or even cared much about one way or another – if it’s true to the story or character then I go all in. I think that’s kind of the key. Whatever your own personal predilections, it’s not about you per se. It’s about telling the best story you can and respecting the integrity of the story and characters. And in doing research, you might find something that you’re interested in more than you’d initially thought, as well as finding productive avenues for character/story growth.

In Chronal Engine, although I’ve always been fascinated by dinosaurs, I’ve never been much interested in plants or gardening and, while I as a kid enjoyed fishing and crayfishing, the study of them has never called to me. But to create an entire ecosystem that involves rivers and lakes, you sort of need the whole thing. And in delving into the research, I became a lot more interested – crayfish etouffee is more than just a good roux, it’s prehistory!

Before we go, the book sets up the possibility of future novels with these characters. Do you have a sequel planned?

We’ll see :-). At the moment, I’m looking forward to final edits on another middle grade/tween adventure, called Little Green Men at the Mercury Inn, scheduled for release next fall from Roaring Brook. It’s the story of three friends at a motel in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and what happens to them in the days after a space shuttle launch is scrubbed due to the presence of a UFO over Cape Canaveral.

That sounds like a great book, too! I look forward to reading it! Thanks for stopping by to talk research with us!

Readers, as added bonus, Greg has offered a signed copy of Chronal Engine to one lucky reader. To enter, please leave a comment below. Earn extra entries by blogging/tweeting/facebooking this interview. Please add each entry as a separate comment below. The winner will be chosen tomorrow (Saturday, August 18th, 2012). Open to US/Can residents only.

Elissa Cruz hasn’t done much research on dinosaurs.  She has, however, recently researched butterflies, farm equipment, and housing developments for her current work in progress.  Next she’ll be researching pranks, hospitals, and lawyer confidentiality laws…for a fictional book.  Honest.  You can find more about her writing life on her blog at elissacruz.blogspot.com.  

27 Responses to Using Research in Fiction—an Interview with Greg Leitich Smith (and a giveaway!)

  1. Thanks, all! I’m glad you liked the interview and hope you enjoy(ed) the book!

    Greg

  2. I love dinosaurs! This book is on my reading list. I can’t wait!

    Elissa Cruz Reply:

    @Marilyn, I hope you like it as much as I did! It’s a great story for dinosaur lovers.

  3. I hope it’s not too late to enter. If so, oh well. : ) Exciting story premise.

    Elissa Cruz Reply:

    @Beth MacKinney, It wasn’t too late, since I pulled the winners later than I had planned. Thanks for commenting anyway!

  4. Great interview. I am writing a MG that takes place in 1962 and I’ve had to do a lot of research for it, to keep things right. Not near as much research as you have done, but still a lot. I’d love to win this book, it sounds like one I’d like very much.

    Elissa Cruz Reply:

    @Janet Smart, Good luck with your own research! I do think historical fiction is the most difficult when it comes to needing to research almost every aspect of the story. I have a lot of respect for those who can create a historically accurate story.

  5. Marissa Graff

    Wonderful interview. Thanks for such thorough answers, Greg. It’s fascinating to hear how your research impacted your process. I’m in the phase where I’ve started writing after days of research/plotting. I’m going back to research more just about everyday, while trying to insert place holders for research that can wait. What a process! Thank you for your insights!

    Elissa Cruz Reply:

    @Marissa Graff, I’m glad you enjoyed the interview, and I second your thanks to Greg for a thorough and informative (and fun!) interview.

  6. THanks for another great interview. I love to hear about the research process in writing craft to share with my class.

    Elissa Cruz Reply:

    @Stacey, You’re welcome. I hope your students find it useful, too. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Great interview. What a massive amount of research! I’d love a copy.

    Elissa Cruz Reply:

    @D.Lee Sebree, Greg puts other fiction authors to shame with his research skills! I’ve learned much from him already, though I don’t ever expect to live up to his 90,000-word research paper!

  8. Interesting and informative interview. You did your research too. I never realized how much fact checking and rechecking went on with being a fiction writer until I started my journey to become one. I’m looking forward to checking out this title.

    Elissa Cruz Reply:

    @Greg Pattridge, Thank you. I’m glad the information was useful, but most of all I’m glad it was interesting! I hope you enjoy the book, too.

  9. My son has always loved dinosaurs and this would be a great story to read together.

    Elissa Cruz Reply:

    @PragmaticMom, Yes, it would be great for kids who love dinosaurs! I hope you enjoy the book.

  10. Great interview, and I’m going to check out this book asap! I love time travel stories, and this one sounds fantastic.

    Elissa Cruz Reply:

    @Michelle Schusterman, You’ll love the twist Greg uses for his time travel, too. I’m not going to tell you…you’ll have to read to find out!

  11. This sounds like a great book for my elementary school library . . . and I appreciate all the time you spent researching. I have read book where it was obvious the author thought he/she could fudge facts and that kids wouldn’t notice . . . but readers do notice the difference when a book is well-researched.

    Elissa Cruz Reply:

    @Cathe Olson, It would fit quite well in a school library…it would go particularly well with a unit on dinosaurs, since Greg did a great job of sharing lots of information in a fun, action-packed story.

  12. Research doesn’t end once you start writing. I sit with my Webster’s and a Slang Dictionary open as I work on a middle grade set in the early 1900’s. It’s amazing how many words and phrases we use daily that weren’t in use back then. It is not okay to write okay in dialogue for 1900. Greg’s books sound wonderful and extra appealing knowing that he’s researched so thoroughly. Thanks for a great interview.

    Elissa Cruz Reply:

    @Judy Enderle, I think research is particularly necessary when you’re writing historical fiction. What a great idea to check a slang dictionary!

  13. Linda Andersen

    Elissa,
    This is a great interview. Greg, your book sounds like one that would interest lots of young readers. With dinosaurs and time machines, it appeals to many adults too. If I win a copy, I promise to pass it on to my grandsons after I’ve had a chance to read it.

    Linda Andersen
    landersen74@yahoo.com

    Elissa Cruz Reply:

    @Linda Andersen, Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. And it is a great book for young readers, particularly those who like dinosaurs…or time machines. ;)

  14. One of the things I loved about CHRONAL ENGINE was the strong sense of place, too! I really felt like I was in the book with Max! Great interview Greg and Elissa.

    Elissa Cruz Reply:

    @Carmen Oliver, Greg did a great job of making you feel like you were right there experiencing everything with Max. I enjoyed that, too. And I’m glad you enjoyed the interview!