What Does It Mean To Research a Novel?

While working with Irving Wallace’s files for his book titled The Miracle, I was quite impressed with the research that went into the novel. I wondered what exactly it meant for a national best-selling author to conduct research. Consider this:¬† Wallace apparently became interested in the miracles reported in Lourdes, France in the early to mid- 1930s. He published an article in 1936 in The Modern Thinker on “Miracles of the Mind.” The article takes the Holy Cross Cemetery of Walden City, Massachusetts as its subject to consider the psychology of cures and he also makes mention of the Grotto at Lourdes and the idea of miraculous cures. In a sense, he was already keen to know the difference between “miracles” and “cures.”

Fast forward to the 1970s. Wallace once again takes up the idea of the miracles at Lourdes and begins reading all of the published works about it. He starts with Lourdes by Emile Zola, written in French in 1894. Wallace photocopies the two-volume English translation borrowed from a university library and begins to outline the work in order to create a summary or abstract. He then diligently types up 17 pages of single-spaced notes focused on the story of Bernadette and the miracles at Lourdes. Next, he does the same for Alan Neame’s The Happening at Lourdes–38 pages of notes; Robert Hugh Benson Lourdes–16 pages; D.J. West Eleven Lourdes Miracles–20 pages; Franz Werfel The Song of Bernadette–17 pages; J.H. Gregory (translator) Bernadette of Lourdes–14 pages; and finally Edith Saunders Lourdes–26 pages of typed, single-spaced notes.


Wallace’s notes list a page number and a summary of the important information in his own words. What he summarizes is very specific:

  • Historical context–what was happening in the 1850s in and around Lourdes, France, when Bernadette first came to the Grotto? What was happening in the Catholic Church at the time? What was the political climate at the time?
  • Key players–who was involved in the initial sighting of the Virgin Mary at the Grotto other than Bernadette? Who was Bernadette? What was her background, beliefs, upbringing, etc.? Who were the psychologists and doctors who examined her and others who have since claimed miraculous cures? What is the relationship between key players?
  • Location–what other facilities throughout France claimed to offer miraculous cures? What influence did those places, such as the bathes at Eugenie, perhaps have on the belief in cures and the ensuing pilgrimage to Lourdes that continues to this day?
  • Religion–how many of the miracles at Lourdes has the Catholic Church officially acknowledge? What distinction do they make between those they acknowledge as “miracles” and the thousands more that they call “cures”? What was the Pope’s response to the Lourdes miracles and how did the Pope use the miracles at Lourdes to strengthen Catholic faith (or did he)?

Other notes pertain to small sections of photocopied works, brochures, tourism pamphlets and information and so forth. Wallace takes note of an interview with Bernadette later in her life. He also obtains an English translation of an interview with Alessandro Maria Gottardi, Archbishop by Dr. Mangiapan of the Lourdes Medical Office. Wallace begins to distill his notes into smaller sections with notations reminding himself at what point in his novel he wants to bring in the information. Wallace begins to create a list of characters for his novel, some based on real people with extensive knowledge of their backgrounds and the roles they played at the time.

Finally–after much of the manuscript outline has been written, the characters developed, and a time-line set up–Wallace travels to Lourdes. There he walks the same path as Bernadette and takes notes on the look, feel, smell, and sounds of the city. He takes notes on the city’s layout (with maps), where and how buildings are situated in relation to the Grotto. Wallace collects post cards, slide souvenirs, pamphlets, and maps. Wallace hires a tour guide and writes about the young, pretty girl with low heels and bare legs who leads the tour, imagining in her another of his characters in the novel.

The research portion of this novel has taken nearly 10 years, from the mid-1970s to early 1983 when Wallace finally begins to write the novel. His inscription on the original manuscript states that he began writing it “on January 20, 1983, when I wrote the first five pages and finished Friday, May 20, 1983, when I wrote eighteen pages.”

And there it is: All the research that went into writing The Miracle, by Irving Wallace.