Researching Mundanity: The Details in Contemporary Fiction

I wrote my first novel about a world I’d been living in forever: the large public school. As a teacher for nearly 20 years, I was intimately familiar with the settings, the procedures, the schedules, the conflicts, and the characters that typically populate an illustrious institution of learning. 

In fact, at one stage in my revision, I was asked to make things less realistic. “What’s with all the armpits and body odor?” my agency editor asked me. And, she said, “I don’t think lunch could possibly start at 10:45.”

I, of course, knew that armpits and body odor were a paramount concern in small, unventilated rooms filled with 35 teenagers at once. And, I’ve scarfed my turkey and cheese sandwiches before 11am on plenty of occasions. But, I made the changes because the last thing I wanted was for people to get stuck on details that didn’t really matter to the story.

I needed to know a little about figure skating, among other things, for my next book.

Speaking of getting stuck on details, recently, my friend Chadd told me that he couldn’t fully appreciate The Americans, a brilliant television show set in the mid-80s because of “little” things. “The anachronisms are killing me,” he said. I was shocked. I hadn’t noticed any such breaks–the story and characters compel me so completely that I’m not thinking about makes and models of cars or types of locks or brands of jeans or anything else. 

But even though I don’t bump on details as a reader or viewer, as an author, I don’t want to lose a reader who does. And, I guess that’s where research comes in, even for contemporary fiction.

My Google queries for MINOR DRAMAS related to the mechanics of Facebook groups and group-run Instagram accounts. I had to ask people about what happens at first rehearsals for high-school theater productions and how long it might take to construct an apartment building.

For my next book (I think I can reveal the title soon!), I’ve had to learn about charter schools, synchronized skating, pollinator gardens, and SnapChat, among other things. I find myself Googling all manner of questions, mostly to help get the background details right for each character. Sometimes I beg a friend to let me buy them coffee and pick their brains. This was the case with my highly fashionable friend, Emily. My new main character is an interior designer and architect. I myself have no style and no instincts, so I made a list of all of the questions Emily would know the answers to: What kind of purse would she carry? What is the wallpaper like in the mudroom? What kind of dining room table did she recommend? Where did she buy the comforter for her son’s bedroom?

My friend Anne, then, read a scene that takes place at synchronized skating practice. “She would say how she fell,” Anne, a synchro mom, told me, “like she caught her toe pick on a chip in the ice, or she under-rotated her half-loop.” I loved getting that “little” moment right.

Since I can’t write all books in which the main character is a school teacher (or a writer who spends the majority of the day in sweatpants, or a mom who gets overly invested in her son’s track and cross country competitions), figuring out other people’s daily details is part of the job. That said, for a new book idea, I found myself Googling, “How does a phishing scam work?” and “How would one sell Ritalin?” it’s in these moments you really hope no one’s monitoring your search history. (And, I guess, that criminals document their methods in detail on public websites.)

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Kathleen West

Kathleen West is the author of the forthcoming novel, Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes, out 2/4/20 from Berkley. She lives in Minneapolis with her family.

This article has 2 Comments

  1. Your post today is so much fun and so interesting, KC! I loved all the juicy detail in Minor Dramas, and I cannot wait for more of them in your next book. Plus, just so you know, I have given away about 5 copies of Minor Dramas, and I no longer even own one myself!! I was planning to order on at the recently cancelled Stillwater book event.. sigh. Take care of yourselves, you and your boys.

  2. As an aspiring writer this is so fun to read. Thank you for sharing your process and contemplation on details! I’ve just started your book and am thoroughly enjoying its pace and the details!

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