Some say books don’t need anything but the author’s talent.
I don’t believe it.
Even if you’re writing a memoir you’ll need a diary, a calendar. What day of the week did Uncle Ted die? What route did we take to Glendalough? How do you spell ‘insouciance’?
The truth is, you need access to some research materials if you want to write a novel, even if it’s only a dictionary.
Now, while it’s true that Charlotte Bronte and her sister Emily probably didn’t research their novels, things have moved along in this here 21st century. What was Okie-dokey back then probably wouldn’t wash today.
But even knowing you’ll need to do some research you still face a challenge: How much is too much? What’s the right percentage of research to writing? And which of those two things comes first? Do you write your novel and check your facts later? Or do you do your research thoroughly and only then sit down to write?
As with almost anything else to do with writing, the answer is It depends. In the first place it depends on the sort of novel you’re writing, and in the second it depends on how much knowledge you have from the outset.
Here are four stages of possibility. Think about the piece you’re currently writing and decide which one most closely matches you:
1. If your story is based on your own life and experiences then you can probably just write the story and double-check specific facts later. If it’s fiction you don’t need to be too precious about whether an event happened in May or in June, for instance, unless it ties in with a real historical event.
2. If your story is influenced by a subject in which you are an expert — say a science fiction novel involving genetics and you’re a pre-eminent geneticist — well you’ve already done most of the research for your job. Again, you can probably just write the book and check specifics later. On the other hand, if you are a scientist checking the facts later probably goes really against the grain…
3. If you’re not an expert, but rather a well-informed amateur, you may be able to get away with writing the novel and checking the facts later. Just be careful: if you aren’t as big an expert as you think you are you may face major problems. One of the biggest gaffes writers make in research is looking up all the stuff they don’t know and assume they don’t need to bother with the stuff they’re ‘sure’ of.
4. If you know very little, or if you’re writing about a fairly specialised subject, you really ought to do the research first, otherwise you run the risk of creating a plot that’s wildly unfeasible. It’s heartbreaking to write a whole novel only to discover the story as you’ve told it just couldn’t happen. The flaws may be irreparable and put you off writing for a very long time.
Lesson #1: Show us a World
Imagine you work for an insurance company and you want to write about nuclear battleships. Perhaps you tried to join the navy but got turned down for health reasons. You’ve read a lot about submarines and the challenges facing crews, but you’ve never actually been in one. A sub, I mean. Not a crew. Unless it’s that sort of book…
Well, if you want to write The Hunt for Red October you’ll need to do some research. In fact, The Hunt for Red October won praise for its technical accuracy so Tom Clancy obviously knew what he was doing.
OK, so you have a great idea for a novel. You read this particular genre extensively and you know nothing like it has ever been done before. Let’s imagine that based on your reading of that genre you feel pretty comfortable in just sitting and writing. What could be wrong?
Well, to start with, you’ve almost certainly inherited other people’s errors.
Lesson # 2: Don’t Repeat the Mistakes of Others
About a year ago I attended an interview with Philipp Meyer, author of The Son. He talked about how his novel deals, in part, with the abduction of a man by the Comanche. In order to research the novel, Meyer spent years living with the Native Americans. He was shocked, he said, to discover that an author he’d always admired, Larry McMurtry, had made many mistakes in his novels of the American west. “Do you own research,” was Meyer’s message.
When I first went to work in a hospital I was shocked at how different it was from all the novels and television shows I’d seen. For instance:
- You don’t rub defibrillator pads together or you might damage them.
- You don’t defibrillate patients who have flatlined. You only defibrillate patients who are, you know, fibrillating. That means their heart is beating too fast and irregularly to be able to circulate the blood efficiently. The clue’s in the name, people!
- In all the people I’ve resuscitated not one has ever been able to chat immediately afterwards. There’s no, “I love you”, no, “Fedinand Higginbottam was the one who tried to kill me!”
Does it matter? People are so used to hearing or seeing this stuff they assume it’s true. What does it hurt if you just perpetuate the myth?
Well, that’s your call. In my opinion it depends on the sort of book you’re writing. If you’re after a light piece of fluff that will be read and then ignored, well, maybe you won’t mind. On the other hand, if you want to write something that even experts can enjoy, follow Sherlock’s lead and DO YOUR RESEARCH!
On the other hand…
How much is too much?
Yes, I know: I keep telling you to get your facts straight and that’s absolutely true. But here’s the thing: you’re supposed to be writing a novel, not a textbook. Unless you are actually writing, you know, a textbook. In which case never mind.
Meyer wrote a book that is being called an American classic. He’s being compared with Faulkner and Steinbeck. If that’s what you’re aiming for then you should probably follow his example and immerse yourself in the world of your novel for a couple of years. Then again, maybe that world doesn’t exist because you made it up. Or maybe, like me, your stories are set in the past and your access is limited.
Even if the world of your book does exist — a behind-the-scenes novel of passion under the Big Top; or murder in the Space Station — you may have other demands on your life that prevent you from running off to the circus or signing up for the space programme.
Research is the foundation of your novel. Sloppy research, sloppy writing. BUT research is not the entire edifice.
Lesson #3: Research should support your story, not replace it.
There was a novelist who was famous in the 1970s. His specialty was stories that revealed the secret workings behind big institutions: hospitals, airports, hotels and the like. The man did his research. BOY, did he do his research. The problem was — at least for me — the stories read like cardboard cutout figures being moved around an environment that was far more important to the writer than the people.
He’d write things like this (I made this version up for emphasis):
Margaret Jones, 28, was having an affair. Her lover, Marco, was waiting in Italy to greet her. She’d be half-way over the Atlantic before her husband, Bert, even knew she was gone. She climbed aboard the plane and took her seat.
The Boeing 707 is a swept-wing design with podded engines. Although it was not the first jetliner in service, the 707 was the first to be commercially successful. It established Boeing as one of the largest manufacturers of passenger aircraft.
The 707 was developed from the Boeing 367-80, a prototype jet first flown in 1954. A larger fuselage cross-section and other modifications resulted in the initial production 707-120, powered by Pratt and Whitney JT3C turboject engines…
You get the gist.
Now, no one can say the man didn’t do his research, and some of those details are probably interesting to a lot of people, engineers, aircraft enthusiasts, and the like. But I suspect the majority of readers skip those paragraphs. They want to know more about the naughty wife and her glamourous paramour.
Books is people, people.
Although my example was exaggerated, the problem isn’t unusual. When you do a lot of research on a topic you don’t want any of it to go to waste.
I’ve been reading Abattoir Blues (2014) by Peter Robinson. The plot concern a detective in Yorkshire and is a pretty solid tale if a bit grim. I was cruising along quite happily when I got caught on this:
‘I understand you’re using ANPR to track the movements of the suspects?’
‘You’ve been reading the papers, I can tell,’ said Joanna, leaning back in her chair and sipping her Coke. ‘OK, yes, that’s part of what we do.’ ANPR stood for automatic number plate recognition, a system of software able to collect number plate data from converted CCTV units on all motorways, major roads, and in town and city centres.
Now, Robinson obviously put a lot of work into this and he’s added the detail to add a level of authenticity to the story. Fair play to you, sir. But to be honest, for me it’s a bit cumbersome. The facts jerk me out of the story rather than taking me deeper into it. It’s like the author is waving a huge yellow flag with a smiley face on it that says, “I DID MY RESEARCH!”
Compare that with this opening to Mr Midshipman Hornblower (1950) by C.S. Forester:
A January gale was roaring up the Channel, blustering loudly, and bearing in its bosom rain squalls, whose big drops rattled loudly on the tarpaulin clothing of those among the officers and men whose duties kept them on deck. So hard and so long had the gale blown that even in the sheltered waters of Spithead the battleship moved uneasily at her anchors, pitching a little in the choppy seas, and snubbing herself against the tautened cables with unexpected jerks.
At first reading it may seem that Forster hasn’t done much research. You’re caught up in the story. Yet look at it again: Could anyone other than a man who has actually been on board a ship describe the details so perfectly? What facts has he shared? That the clothes are made of tarpaulin, that Spithead is sheltered, and how an 18th century ship moves in the middle of a gale. The research is hiding in plain sight.
Research, really good research, should support the story as it does here. We will later discover that the young man who’s being ferried in the middle of this gale is one newly-minted Midshipman by the name of Horatio Hornblower and that he suffers badly from seasickness. This sickness will colour his introduction to his fellow shipmates, and subsequently his naval career through many books and adventures. Forester isn’t merely creating atmosphere, he’s showing us the set before the hero makes his entrance.
It’s a very tricky thing to do, to get the balance right. Learning your craft and avoiding clunky exposition is tricky but as Forester shows us, it can be done.
10 tips for how to maintain the chicken-egg balance:
- As you outline your story idea, even if it’s just a couple of paragraphs, make a list of things you must know before you start.
- Do enough research to be sure your story can fly before you start that first draft.
- As you write that first draft, make notes about things you need to check. In some cases you can easily look things up before you start writing your next segment. A phone call, a reference book, an internet search — these can give you enough information to keep you on track.
- Make factual revisions as you go, if at all possible.
- Keep a notebook specifically for your research for that novel. Or you can use your word processor’s revision tools. Just be sure you can access it easily, both for when you have questions and for when you find answers.
- If you hit a serious roadblock — your story depends upon your main character, a woman, graduating in medicine from an Oxford University in 1808 and you’ve just discovered that wouldn’t be possible for another 80-odd years — you need to stop and regroup. See if you can modify the damage somehow: Make the character male; move the story forward a century; have your heroine dress as a man in order to get an education. (It worked for Yentl.) But whatever you do, fix this problem before you move on.
- Record all sources of information. If you happen upon an expert make sure you remember him or her. You might need that source again for your next book.
- When you finish writing your first draft send the manuscript to someone who knows a lot about the subject. Ask them to evaluate your accuracy.
- Take advice on board but make your own decisions. Sometimes experts offer their pet theories as facts so you might need a second opinion. Sometimes an expert will spot something very minor and you need to decide if the the amount of rewriting is worth it for something only a real PhD in the field would spot. Obviously if the rewrite is minor you should do it regardless.
- Finally, this is your work. You’ll never catch all the mistakes but owe it to yourself and your craft to try. Just don’t lose the story in the process.
And remember, even Sheldon Cooper makes mistakes: