Writing: How much research is too much?
As a writer, I often don my literary deerstalker and research painstaking detail, dropping into crowded city squares, or wandering deserted lanes through the magic of Google Streetmap. I read accounts of then and now in the town where we plan to set our story. Getting to know how people look, sound and smell. What they eat? What they do in any spare time they might have?
The best advice I’ve been given is to do all that, but then forget it. Readers buy fiction for entertainment. If they learn something along the way, that’s great, but the story must come first. A character or the story itself can’t take second billing to a blob of research dropped in by the author to prove they know their stuff. What matters to me as a writer probably doesn’t even figure in the person’s mind following my story. Obviously if I write a story set in Medieval England and someone puts a pasty in the microwave, that’s a red flag, but come on …
Inform rather than overpower
Research informs our imagination, but it cannot overpower. As a child, we might dream of cuddling a polar bear. As an adult, we’ll have learned they’d sooner rip off our heads than submit to a squeeze.
Factual stuff like this matters – just as much as knowing how you get from England to Turkey in 1840, but the danger is there of trying to ram this into a story. Too much detail copied from research notes is the equivalent of showing someone your holiday snaps. They matter to you, but other people are just being polite when they feign interest.
Where you know your research has worked is when readers tell you they don’t think a character would have acted in a certain way. The people on your pages have assumed human form. It’s why I prefer a ‘happy for now’ ending than a happy ever after. Who’s to say I might not come back to these people one day? I want readers to be able to let them live on too.
Research on the fly
Julian Barnes only believes in research when you know what you’re writing. ‘A history of the world in 10 ½ chapters’ has one character reciting fact, having done her homework, but being slightly ridiculed by another who just wants the adventure.
When I start writing, I may have done some reading around the key subject and setting, but I won’t have gone into great depth. I know though, what I will need to know. I know that my character might stay at a certain hotel. That means that when I get there, I’ll have to break off and make a virtual visit. My top tip here is to go for websites where users post their own pictures rather than the artfully posed photographs selected by the hotel owners. A half-unpacked suitcase on a rumpled throw with a scuff mark up the far wall is going to trigger better writing. You’d be surprised just how many people are happy to photograph dirty toilets. Like they need to remember this part of their dream holiday.
You can skip so much description if you feature places that conjure up associations in the minds of many. If you talk about Southend or New York or Paris, readers create an inner postcard, letting the writer focus in on a detail rather than having to open on a wide shot. The writer doesn’t have to go to the trouble of building a scene from the ground up.
As for how much of yourself you put into books, – it’s still research even if you have to spend a half day cringing at awful memories – we all have more memory of the awful things than the great ones.
There’s a lovely warm glow around that Christmas dinner with everyone laughing and joking, but a horribly stark light thrown on the day you followed through on the number nine bus.
How much research do you do? Can you start writing without it, or is that an absolute blocker?
My new romantic comedy ‘Ghosted‘ is out on 31 October – though it’s nothing to do with ghosts and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night. It’s a Christmas romance, set onboard a gay cruise. A romantic comedy to restore your faith in human nature. I’ll be talking more about it in the coming days. Sign up to my mailing list to win prizes, bookmarks, copies and score bonus content.