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