Do you do your research?

Back when I started writing and was working on short stories the idea of research didn’t loom very large. Mostly I was writing from my own experience, things I either knew first hand or had already read. I didn’t really have to gather knowledge in order to get the story down on the page.

Once you start writing novels I think that changes a little. firstly because you have so much more of a canvas to fill – you need to create whatever world you are writing in more depth than you do over the two or three thousand words of a story.

800px-Encyclopedia_Britannica_seriesWhat that inevitably means is that you have to know more about the world you are striving to inhabit. That’s fine if it’s your world, if it’s someone else’s then it’s probably time to do some research.

I find I read around a subject almost before I know I’m interested in writing about it. What we write springs from our interests and passions in the end after all. Once I am hooked on a subject though I will pursue information on it through the usual channels. I will visit the library, I will get online and I will look out for articles in the newspapers and magazines I read.

I will even gather cuttings and printouts from articles on the net and keep them folded in the back of my notebook – because there is specific information in them which I think I need, or just the idea of something, just the feel or spirit of something which I think might help me later on.

While I was researching for Song of the Sea God I was interested of course in information about all kinds of ancient religions and beliefs and the ritual which went with them. But I also needed to research psychological magicians’ tricks such as cold reading, and I needed to know more about how cults worked and the dynamics of the relationship between a leader and his followers.

For parts of the book I needed to know about people who managed to live on rubbish tips, people who believed they had been healed by miracles. I looked at outsider art and the huge, incredible structures built by people from found materials.

All manner of things which I did not know from my general knowledge.

I think the more research you can do for a book the better – but you really don’t want to see it all on the page. There’s nothing worse for the reader than having to plough through a big heap of undigested facts – they want a story not an encyclopaedia entry. The research you do should inform what you write rather than be what you write.

Having a body of knowledge and understanding behind what appears on the page can make your work richer and more complete without you having to prove you have done the reading by displaying it. So, for example, your background knowledge can inform the way a character reacts to a situation.

GoldenBough(373x545)In Sea God my reading took me to all kinds of places I had never been before – it was an extra little pleasure in the writing of the book. I read widely but I suppose if I had one key text it was The Golden Bough, which is a huge collection of religious beliefs and traditions published in 1890 by James Frazer. He took a dispassionate view of religion and looked at it as a cultural phenomenon – which got him into all sorts of trouble at the time but seems a very modern way of looking at it now.

His world of fertility rites, human sacrifices, the dying god and the scapegoat informed the world of Song of the Sea God. And indeed, the central character in the book, John Love, carries a battered copy of The Golden Bough with him which he uses as a kind of text-book.

What sort of research do you do as a writer? And, as a reader, how important do you think it is that a novel rests on a bedrock of research?

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.


20 thoughts on “Do you do your research?”

  1. Really well put! I can’t bear it when an author ‘floats’ his research over the surface of the work. It needs to be woven in so that it informs the piece without instructing the reader.

    Great post, thank you!

      1. I actually research for documentaries, books, and for the desire to keep learning. Tip: keep lists on your coffeetable, nightstand, desk during this vital phase. Fact check like a reporter. Contact me for a few websites, if you’d like.

  2. I agree with Chris’s suggestion that the research should inform certain things in a story and not dominate. Research should help you get under the skin of a place and an historic era so that you can write with some authority. I have a sneaky suspicion though that research for some writers may be a way of delaying the much harder issue of writing the book. And it always sounds impressive at least when someone tells you they’re off to Venezuela for a spot of research for the upcoming book!

  3. 90% of the research I do doesn’t appear in the books…but it is the bedrock upon which the books are built. It seems a waste–but nothing is ever wasted..for Diamonds & Dust, I’m going to do a series of blog posts called Victorian Values, in which I can do a mash-up of the research and modern interpretations…so nothing will be lost. Like you, I’ve also used newspapers cuttings and wombled on the internet to find articles (hint: NEVER google corsets…Hahahaha)

  4. Research is essential isn’t it? For The Skipper’s Child, I used a number of books on the European Waterways as reference material, but the one I used most was a book written in the late fifties about boating through Belgium. I found it an invaluable source of information. I was also lucky to have a homegrown skipper to quiz, but apart from that, I needed to look up what was in the news at the time, what the weather was doing, and also sorts of specific details about that week in 1962. It was great to do as like you, it involved so much that I was already interested in. Thanks again for a great post, Chris!

    1. Yes – must be more of a trial if you end up having to research things you find dull – but then, if you do then so might your reader so perhaps in that case you would be writing a book about the wrong thing.

  5. Yes, I research until I’m totally immersed in whatever, then close all the books and websites without checking anything – just let what I know become part of the scenery. It’s easy enough to tinker with details at the editing stage.

    1. Very true – it’s not even always facts I need, I’ve got quite a lot in some cases by looking at photographs – it’s often more the spirit or the essence of something you are trying to capture rather than just a pile of information.

  6. Chris, I hope this comment posts this time! Research is one thing I do not enjoy doing, not because I don’t want to learn, but because it’s time consuming and I want to finish the story. There was a lot of research in Fable. I had to study the coast of British Columbia. the terrain, the animals, and even and threats of environmental issues. Plus, my story had to take place where people did not frequent. I did like learning about the Kermode bear (spirit bear) of the north. Research is vitally important to make your book ring true and to take your reader along on the journey. Good advice!

    1. Hi Lisa – yes you appeared fine! I know what you mean about holdings things up, but it’s a long process producing a good book anyway isn’t it – always a marathon rather than a sprint. It sounds like you found some interesting stuff for your book too!

  7. I often find inspiration through research. For example, I’m working on a short story about a real house that was built with rounded corners inside and out. I grew up near this house, and I’d heard that the owners had the corners built that way because they were Spiritualists who believed that corners “trap” spirits. They wanted any passing spirits out and about, ready to make contact during seances.

    That explanation of the architecture survives on many websites today.

    Doing research, though, I’m finding 1) the date when the house was built (in Illinois) coincides dangerously closely to the date when the Spiritualism movement was just beginning (in New York) and 2) nary a scrap of evidence that any Spiritualists believed rounded corners facilitated seances.

    So I’m left to wonder: why did this couple, who may well have gone on to become Spiritualists, have their house built with rounded corners? This is what my ghost-hunting protagonist must answer!

  8. The key, I find — especially for historical novels — is to read a lot, and then forget almost everything you’ve read. Writers (myself included) tend to get attached to the research they’ve done, and end up putting great gobs of it into the narrative because they don’t want to “waste” it. I once read a fictional treatment of a real 19th century Frenchwoman. The author, an American, couldn’t help but mention that the year this woman completed her education was the same year oil was found in Pennsylvania, and that all of his action was happening before the Civil War, etc., etc. It would have made a good book even better to trust the reader to draw those parallels him/herself. By all means, do the research so that you can write confidently about the period/country/etc. but once you’re writing, keep the story up front. Research is like Brylcreem (that stuff men used to put on their hair back in the 50’s) — a little dab ‘ll do ya.

    1. Absolutely Nanette, it needs to inform what you write and provide a basis of understanding – as with anything else, if it feels awkward and out of place on the page then it probably shouldn’t be there.

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