All in the name of research: How far would you go?
Updated: Nov 10, 2019
In this post, I'm talking about the research we all have to do as writers. For me, it's probably one of my favourite parts of the process. As someone who loves acquiring new information, the opportunity to add to an increasingly eclectic collection of obscure general knowledge is always a pull. Occasionally, a book's central theme might be something you already know a lot about, but even here some research is required. For example, when I wrote 'The Forest Children', I already had most of the information I required about the legends of Robin Hood, having been a huge fan of the TV series, 'Robin of Sherwood' and having already read lots about him. However, even here there were facts to be checked, episodes to be re-watched, questions to be asked of people on the RoS fan pages (primarily from the friendly bunch on 'Outlawed') and even a visit made to Sherwood Forest and the village of Edwinstowe.
When it came to 'The Stranger at the Door', the second novel in my 'Isles of Legend' series, I decided that the central theme was going to be Norse mythology and I wanted the action to move around Britain to incorporate other myths and legends. This posed a rather serious problem, as my knowledge of Norse mythology was limited to say the least. I ended up going back to basics and spent a day at my local library surrounded by every book on Norse mythology (whether for adults or children) that the library had. I had a notebook for the novel and this was used initially for my research notes and then as I read more and plot ideas began to form, I also used it to make notes about the structure of the novel. This was the first time that I had made notes in this way, so it was a bit of a learning curve and although they were extremely helpful, it did mean that by the end of the first draft, the notebook was a mass of scribblings, crossings out and was well thumbed from all the hours I'd spent trying to find specific references that I'd needed as I was writing.
I'm a great fan of visiting the places I'm writing about whenever possible, so that I can at the least, get a flavour of where I'm setting the story and at best make notes that will add a further sense of realism to a scene. 'The Stranger at the Door' took me to the Lake District, Blackpool, Alderley Edge and Wayland's Smithy to name just a few locations. My current works in progress have involved trips to Exeter, the University of Essex and explorations of the north Essex coast (where luckily I now live!). However, 'on location' trips aren't always possible and so the internet comes to the rescue and I have to search for images and maps of the places I'm writing about. When all else fails, artistic license is used and I just use my imagination to fill in the gaps!
Yesterday, I caught the end of Radio 4's drama 'Skeletons in the Cupboard' about a writer who was researching a crime novel and in the process set out to inveigle his way into the lives of two vulnerable women, just to see how it could be done. I'd also recently read of a writer who had arranged to get herself arrested just so she could experience it and therefore write more realistically about it. I felt this put my dedication to research to shame and it got me wondering what other writers do.
At a recent meeting of my book group, Dave Griffiths, local author and fellow member of my local writers' group came to do a talk and he was asked about the research he'd done for his Acme Time Travel novels. He told us that because the novels relied heavily on a time travel device, he'd had to create an entire back story about the company who had made the device. This involved researching how companies worked, the theoretical science of time travel and researching medical conditions that suited his purposes. What he ended up with was several thousand words of the history of his fictional company, most of which wasn't used in the final novels, but without which, the novels would never have been completed.
Because I'm limited by school runs these days, Google is my best friend when it comes to research. At the click of a button, I can be in a Moscow train station and then be transported to the Suffolk countryside within seconds. If anyone looked at my search history and didn't know I was a writer, it would give a very warped impression of me! I spent Boxing Day last year reading 'Why People Die of Suicide' by Thomas Joiner and had to explain to my bemused in-laws that I was fine and it was just research for my latest university assessment. The next time they came to visit we had a similar conversation when I was reading about the effects on a student of having an affair with their teacher. Likewise, I have had to explain that my research into domestic abuse, coercive control and hiding an affair from a partner have all been in the pursuit of authentic writing, not a commentary on my own life. I have also used events in the lives of my friends to create realistic characters and used people I know as inspiration for the people in my books.
I was asked recently by a fellow student about how I did the necessary research and I explained that I usually do just enough to get the creative process going and then do more digging into individual topics as they become necessary for the plot to progress. However, when I considered it further after our conversation, I realised that quite often, the plot developments come about because of the research. This has certainly been the case for my latest foray into the 'Isle of Legends' world. I am currently working on the third book, which I wanted to set partly in my home town. However, I couldn't work out how to make all the various ideas I had fit together, let alone figure out how to include elements that would become important in later books in the series. A car journey listening to a Radio 4 programme about 'Doggerland' and a visit to The Tate's William Blake exhibition got my brain going and gradually the disparate pieces began to fall into place. Digging on the internet, reading some of Blake's original work, reading about his religious beliefs and getting a copy of 'The History of the Kings of Britain' by Geoffrey of Monmouth filled in the gaps and suddenly, a plot began to emerge, looking rather more formed than it had a few days earlier.
These pictures show the work of the last week from basic, but largely unconnected plot ideas, through some research, to a more organised and detailed plot structure
Although it's important not to overload a reader with research, it's easy to tell when a writer hasn't done any, particularly if the reader has some knowledge in that area. Even if you are writing a novel set in a dystopian future of your own creation, the likelihood is that there will be some research needed. In this feature from Penguin Books, Margaret Attwood talks about drawing on the past in order to create the world of 'The Handmaid's Tale' and this only serves to highlight how anything and everything can be used to create works of fiction. The only question is, as a writer, how far are you prepared to go in the name of research?