Well as I come to the end of a phase dedicated to research, I thought I would say a few words about it. It might be useful to take some of the things I’m thinking as I start writing the new novel, for this Blog. Any useful insights. If I have any!
And so I guess a good place to start is research.
How much should you do and how much do you need?
Answer: How long is a piece of string?
Every project is different. Yep, true enough. So I will say it again: every project is different.
I am really brushing up on research I did for the short story I am adapting into a novel, but that does mean I need to explore some areas in far more depth. I am still in the phase but ready to write.
Obvious as this might seem, (but I’ll say it anyway!), the amount of research you need, depends very much on your current knowledge of the subject. If you are indeed ‘writing what you know’ and ‘what you know well’, perhaps you don’t need as much. Personally I don’t like the phrase ‘write what you know’ because 1. you can get to know almost anything, right? Kind of? And 2. if we only wrote what we knew, how many fantasy and Sci-Fi books would get written? If you write what you know, is your knowledge accurate? Validated? Unbiased? Can it ever be unbiased? Write what you know about being human — this is what translates in any genre.
I don’t spend weeks and weeks researching because I need to write, like I’m driven by some primeval instinct, and if I don’t my head will explode, but I need some research for sure. If I was writing historical fiction then I’m sure it would need more research, unless I was a professor of history but then my life would be about researching! But I do spend a fair amount of time. This can be fun, reading books, watching movies even. I did a lot of this for my JFK novel. In fact it was that, that made me realise how blurred the line is between fact and fiction.
I did a fair amount of digging for my Isle of Pelicans novel (now resting, it has ‘issues’) … in fact it was a visit to Alcatraz that inspired it. So I did a lot of reading and went back there. By then I had a first draft. The internet is a great source of information, but a word of warning … you can also find a lot of nonsense there. So be wise about your interpretation. As I pointed out to my paranoid friend, anyone can post anything. I have an MSc and worked as a scientist before this. I could post some ‘fact’ that says if you sneeze more than 5 times a day you are 10% more likely to get cancer and, someone somewhere will believe it. I did just type it, in fact and on the internet. But it’s not true, well as far as I know! But get my drift?
Perhaps it’s my background that makes me more aware when researching. I often had to look up scientific information in my last job, and that meant using reputable publications and websites. I had to seek validation of those facts from at least 5 sources. Just be wise, especially when looking for historical information. But you all know this anyway because you’re all so clever!
Deciding what was ‘fact’ and what was ‘fiction’ about the Kennedy assassination was not easy. Those pesky grey areas, and there are a lot. Then you can go with what you feel. Accuracy in fiction I talked about before. Your call. It is fiction after all. But you decide. How credible and how real do you want your work to be? No one says it has to be truthful, but if you want authenticity then you need some truth.
When I did pay another visit to San Francisco it was part of a 40th birthday trip I took with a few fellow ’40 club’ friends. So it was not just for research, if only I had the agent and publisher willing to fund that, right? But I did go armed with a notebook and dragged my friends to all sorts of places. The best was Golden Gate Park where a body was found (in the book people!). We rode the amazing carousel they have there, one featured in my story, and I took lots of photos of the kiddies playground. I hope no one thought I was some pervert! I did not take photos of children, although some might have got in the panned shots. But the oddest thing was asking my mates to help me look for a good spot, near to, but out of sight, of the playground where my character was beaten to death! And like good sports they joined in. “Over here? “No, too dark.” “What about here? The legs could stick out under this tree?” “No, too exposed.” … you get the drift. “No Mr American cop with a big gun, I don’t really plan to kill someone and leave the body in this park. Honest.” No that last one didn’t happen. But imagine!
I did email the San Francisco Police Department and the wardens at Alcatraz for information, mind. I wanted to know if you could hide a kidnapped child on Alcatraz after it closed. I did have to explain I really did not have any intention of doing this of course. The nice man told me no as it’s all lit up and they check after it closes so the information was helpful! And the cop sent me a great email about procedure. He even said ‘let you imagination go wild here!’ when I was asking about forensics!
You can learn a lot from books and the internet and many people have published successful novels having never visited the place. I think it helps, but is not always possible.
I would love to have visited Grapevine Texas, the setting of While No One Was Watching (what a name for a real place where a reporter lives, eh?) And I still want to stand on the grassy knoll. I have been to Texas and to Dallas as I have travelled a lot in the USA so I am not setting novels there for the fun of it. It just seems to fit my stories.
You might not have to go there but it helps. Being in a place can allow you to add an authenticity that’s hard to capture otherwise. It’s in the little details. I found myself standing in the Golden Gate Park noticing the shapes made by the trees in late afternoon. I noticed smells and we asked someone who told us what blossom you get at that time of year. These are the things that can make the difference. So if you can go, do. But as I say, not always possible.
I Am Wolf is set in New York briefly (I have been and know it enough for what I need), Moscow and a small Russian village … hmm this has been part of my research as this is new to me. I don’t need lots of detail but I need enough. And a small part in Alaska which I would love to visit. But I have enough for this. I already delved into linguistics and psychology but have bought and read a few more texts.
When you have digested the information you need and you get writing, you will always need to dig more as your novel takes you in fantastic unexpected directions of its own. But this is exciting.
Where writers often stumble — with this newly acquired knowledge — is in its deployment.
Ever read those novels where the action is paused for huge information dumps? I know what people think, I have thought it. Well I learned all this, I want to show it off. NO. Please don’t. Like those small details, smells in a park for example that you use to add authenticity, it’s the little things from your research that can say more than big info dumps. The same can be said about all the scenes you end up deleting and all the background information you know about your characters that you never directly use. I’ll tell you why. Knowledge is powerful. You all know that. But hey, let me say it again anyway: knowledge is powerful.
And knowledge will seep through in the way you write and the little things you add. Your readers are astute and will sense the depth of your characters when you know far more than you write, because it will be there in the subtext of your words. The way you know your subject will do the same. This is where fiction writers can use their power.
If you want to show the world in a different way, reveal some flaw in human nature, show another perspective; whatever your theme or intention, fiction makes it seem real. Unlike documentaries or factual books, fiction can be emotive, you can get right into the psyche of your characters and become them for a while. Maybe this is enough to produce the paradigm shift, the change in thinking that no factual book could give you?
Would you sit and read a text-book on self-actualisation and linguistics in feral children? Wolf biology? The history of Russia? Perhaps you would, perhaps you wouldn’t. But through fiction knowledge is imparted. Now I have to say that again don’t I? Well I will anyway: through fiction knowledge is imparted. It’s another way of learning, but a very intimate one and one that the soap writers are more than aware of. You can bring the world’s attention to many things through films and books and I am sure these outsell the factual books, when you are often preaching to the converted.
So do your research and use it wisely.
Now I will leave you all in peace. Have a great weekend y’all!
‘I Am Wolf’ drawn by Colin Wyatt