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Research - How far should we go?

In the Forum "Writing with Purpose," we seem to be drifting into the issue of research with the risk of diluting Donna's intention with launching the forum.

As novice fiction writers, the advice we hear is to write what we know. But, there is also the school of thought that encourages the need for research. Undoubtedly this is the case when writing with purpose.  I've noticed that some writers on various courses have delved into family history, having discovered material that documented their ancestor's involvement in critical moments of history. If we stick to the notion of writing what we know, how much has that knowledge was manipulated? Do we need to double-check? I recently read a document, entitled "Europe's Historical Memory,"  prepared for the European Parliament. The central thesis of the research work was that if Europe does not investigate and understand its past (beyond the atrocities of Nazism and Stalinism), we will not be able to shape our future. I found this a valid concept idea if applied to particular genres of fiction.    

It would be interesting to exchange views on the need for research. How much? At what stage in the writing process? And how do we use it in fiction? 

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Replies (49)
    • I do research as I'm going along - so for example if I'm writing about someone who steals a boat - I know next to nothing about boats.

      I will need to decide:

      1. what type of boat is it?

      2. How do you start/drive a boat?

      3. What stuff is on a boat that I need to know about - radar, depth guage, how  long the anchor rope/chain is and how to use it.

      4. what the speed is i.e. if it has a top speed of twenty five knots what's that in MPH?

      5. How does someone report a stolen boat?

      6.Where can you hide a boat.

      In the end I got the character to steal a car, I know more about cars, but the point it it's easy to do research now, when I was at uni, I did quite a lot of civil law in my first year and the lecturer would NOT allow us to use Google he insisted we went to the library and trolled through tomes and tomes of case law to research the projects he'd set us, just like he had to do when he was young.

      The girl that got the best grade was held up as a paragon of virtue she had done such a brilliant job he said and he could tell that she's spent more hours in the library than probably the rest of us put together.

      She told us later in the pub that she'd googled it all in three hours.

      Stupid old bugger of a law lecturer was clueless - but nowadays it's so easy to research stuff online why would you bother going to the library?

      Some of my recent google searches include:

      How to sneak a rocket launcher out of a UK army base, How to smuggle a gun into the UK (Post it in bits and pieces from Texas in case anyone's interested), Where to stab someone so that they die instantly, how much force is needed to smash someone's skull in with an iron bar, How long it takes a body to decompose outside in February, how to deep to bury a body so that dogs can't smell it, how to make a bomb small enough to fit in a handbag.

      As I'm typing I'm waiting for MI5 to knock down my door and whisk me away for questioning.!

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      • Google has many advantages. However, it often misses the advantage of finding something unexpected. This happens in bookshops whilst moving along shelves, and certainly in copyright libraries. I used to have a guest card for the Cambridge University Library. Fascinating. 

        Of course, studying law is very specific. But you can't always trust Google to throw out what you really need. Lancaster University has conducted research in that area. 

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        • Based on your google searches, I want to read whatever the hell you're writing.

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          • LOL let's hope a publisher does as well!!

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          • I do a bit of research on the settings and/or institutions/organisations before I start writing the first draft. Then as I write the first draft I note all the things I need to research so I have a list after the first draft. Sometimes I need to stop writing and do a bit of research if I'm not sure the plot works - usually because I don't know something - but I keep this at a minimum. Then as I'm writing the second draft I research just as Danny does, as I go along. 

            I write the first draft by hand and type future drafts. It's rare that I don't have to research anything, makes me realise how little I know! But I make sure to set my books in environments I would love to know more about and that makes the research more fun than chore. My current WIP is set partly in the theater and while I've dabbled in amateur theater I know nothing about the professional life so I'm studying and learning as I go. Such fun!

            I would say only research as much as you have to. That sounds bla bla but it helps to stop me going off on a tangent. As it is, I always have to do way more research than ends up in the book, just to get a proper feel of the world I'm writing about. In my last book (unpublished) I spent a year researching Italian politics then a few drafts along it all became unnecessary! If that book ever gets published you'll learn nothing about Italian politics from it ;) 

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            • Hi Sarah. I was a professional actor for 20 years (between 1978 and 1998), working mostly in theatre in the UK. I've been out of the business for a while now, so my experience won't be current, I'm afraid, but if I can help in any way with general info or answers to specific questions please feel free to message me and I'll do my best! 🙂 

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            • I think it depends on what you're writing. Fiction is just that - fiction. Even Hilary Mantel has had to point out that she writes fiction so it is not right to criticise her if she takes what some might consider liberties. That said, the reader needs to feel they are in a safe pair of hands are are not being fed rubbish. I've fallen into the trap of researching, for example, a particular illness to exhaustion. That's fine and necessary for my knowledge, but then I've found it hard to resist showing off how much I know. This resulted in readers querying some of the points made when all I needed/wanted to do was have them get immersed in the story with enough detail to make it feel real.

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              • I agree, doing too much research up front can lead to a lot of wasted time and (if you're strong) not much getting used! 

                Mantel apparently does far more of her research after her first draft now than she used to. I've found this also works better for me - I try to check that the main elements are correct and then work out what I need to know later.

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                • I agree, doing too much research up front can lead to a lot of wasted time and (if you're strong) not much getting used! 

                  Mantel apparently does far more of her research after her first draft now than she used to. I've found this also works better for me - I try to check that the main elements are correct and then work out what I need to know later.

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                  • I agree, doing too much research up front can lead to a lot of wasted time and (if you're strong) not much getting used! 

                    Mantel apparently does far more of her research after her first draft now than she used to. I've found this also works better for me - I try to check that the main elements are correct and then work out what I need to know later.

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                  • My approach is not too different from Danny and Sarah. Although probably with an emphasis on post-first draft research. 

                    I wrote large chunks of the trilogy at various times (often with 1-2 year intervals), very much based upon what I knew or thought I knew! As I have mentioned elsewhere under the Writing with Purpose forum, my book is a political thriller. It involves Russians, KGB (and its successor), MI6, the Mafia, corrupt politicians, right-wing groups, British aristocracy and corruption in the City of London (including off-shore banking, tax evasion and secret societies). When I write, I do so at considerable speed. Following each day’s work, I will read through and make a preliminary analysis of where I would need more information. 

                    The first draft was based on what I thought I knew and life/work experiences. My characters (I’ve had to cut down quite a few or merge), were very clear in my head. But still, I had to do more research. For example, one of my main characters is based on a person I observed during a trip to Johannesburg (I’ve explained elsewhere). She was a South African human rights lawyer of Italian origin. Her personality fitted the person I needed, but I wanted her to have a different background; the daughter of Sicilian immigrants in a mining district of France. Her father is eventually killed by the Mafia (all background stuff not in the book itself). A similar approach was adopted with the other characters. 

                    The big trouble came, probably self-inflicted,  when I wanted to understand more about the Russians. Their history and eventual similarities in the way they had behaved during the transition period (the 1990s) to other periods of their history. Out came books on the Romanovs and the years following the Russian Revolution. It turned out that there had been similar attempts to open up the market to some kind of capitalism – with dramatic consequences for most of those involved. 

                    Next came the issues of the history of the British aristocracy, the 1930s and 1960s fascist movements in the UK, the secrecy of the Livery Companies of the City of London, and the workings of company formation, “tax efficiency”. Not forgetting the issues of political corruption, the Mafia,  following the antics of the oligarchs,  hackers and on-board computers in cars.  

                    At one point,  I read through reports I had written many years ago, especially relating to keeping the public misinformed both in the East and West. (I had prepared the documentation for an awareness programme on the secondary medical effects of the Chernobyl accident. 

                    Of course, very little of the research work will appear in the books - no preaching/superiority!  Perhaps I have overdone the work, but I really wanted to get a feel of what I am writing, intimately knowing my characters and the environments in which they operate. And, naturally, based on what I had learned, what go be factors to "change" the character or direction as I proceed through the trilogy.  

                    The books are still not finished. I'm editing like mad, but it has been a very educational process. I acquired much more knowledge than I thought I had! 

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                    • I should add that I have had valuable input on some of the technical/financial issues from people who read the first draft and work in that environment. 

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                      • (Looks around for potential collateral damage. Steps back. This can of worms is about to erupt into a hazardous mess…)

                        There are a lot of possible answers to this question. But first, it behoves us to understand some of the guidance we are dealing with in working our way through all of this.

                        • What kind of research are we talking about? Historical events? Technical questions? Psychological issues? All of the above? Something else?
                        • What is meant by "write she you know"?
                        • How much accuracy is required for fiction to be conveyed as realistic, to be accepted and believed?


                        I will, of course, start somewhere other than the beginning of the list. Just because. What does "write what you know" mean? Is this a suggestion that we should write about our own lives? That we should set stories within the confines of our professional or personal experiences? Or does it mean something else?

                        Any of those definitions would rule ouf the writing of anything fantastical or futuristic, yet those are some of the largest markets. As such, it must mean something else.

                        I posit, based on similar suggestions I have heard elsewhere, that it is about writing about feelings and issues we have experience of. It is about conveying echoes and shadows of our lives within a realm that may have nothing to do with the "real" one.

                        The obvious question about whether this should also apply to our technical experience - whether an activity, an area of study and proficiency, or otherwise - I will leave for the next point I tackle.

                        In my own writing, I deal with a lot of characters who do not relate to the world around them. They have messed-up relationships (if any at all), they feel a lack of agency within their environment, they fail to understand other's perspectives. Not all at the same time, but spread across a cast. Why? Because this is what I know about relationships. I could not possibly write a realistic loving and supportive relationship; I have no concept of what that looks - feels - like.

                        We come next to the question of accuracy. Again, I am going to cheat and paraphrase what I have come across elsewhere. The trick here is to go deep and wide. You do not need to get everything right, but you do need to convince your reader that the reality you are painting for them is accurate - trick them into believing this, in a sense. To do this, pick out one detail, one aspect of the subject that is important and relevant. It's probably a good idea to make this the firing mechanism of Chekhov's gun - something where the attention to detail ties into the final resolution. And be forthcoming about this detail. Don't skimp. Show your knowledge, show how much you have researched it. Or experienced it, if this is knowledge acquired prior to tackling your manuscript. Explain why things fit together the way they do.

                        And then… skirt over much of the other technical detail on other semi-related matters. Not by brushing them off, but carrying the authority established in that deep dive to all the things you will populate the wider scape with.

                        Of course, you can't afford to get anything wrong in the areas where you go wide - readers will pick out such glaring errors and then you will lose the established authority - so you need to do as much research for the subjects you only brush over as you did for the one you exposed in all its glory. You need, in effect, to become something of an expert in the subjects you investigate.

                        (For my own work, I spent a couple of days digging into formulations for ink, and for glass, into temperatures involved in glassmaking and the fuels that would allow this given technological constraints. None of which will make it into my manuscript, but peripheral details relating to it will, which allows it to be realistic. it tells me what areas I need to create fantastical solutions for, because the real-world options aren't up to scratch.)

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                        • As always, Rick, a really insightful and helpful exploration and summation. Lots in there to think about and learn from. Thank you!

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                          • It's fine to write about characters who "do not relate to the world around them." That's what fiction is all about -- made up characters.

                            BUT, unless you're writing fantasy, the background, the "real" bits, the earth in which we live, must be accurate to carry your reader with you. I've made a comment on another post about boats. Do not make up stuff about boats, if you don't know what you're talking about. You lose a huge section of your readership. Similarly, the comment about oak trees in Africa. Impossible. This sort of stuff is so easy to check. 

                            I remember I was collaborating on a James Bond book. While the movies are something else, the principle of Bond stories is that everything must be physically possible, albeit highly improbable. The first draft had 007 travelling by car and speedboat from central Australia to Hong Kong in a day. Totally impossible, but easy to correct. Similarly, details like which type of Hong Kong taxi (colours varied at that time with zoning) were wrong. Easy to correct. Either use Google or ask someone who knows what they're talking about.

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                          • For me, like others above, research is split into two main types. Stuff I know I need to know at the beginning of the preparation for the book. And stuff I don't know I need to know until I've started writing.

                            The first type obviously happens as part of the development process, before the writing's even started, and centres around the characters and the main elements of the plot. The second type happens more organically as part of the writing process for me, where I get to a point where I can't progress without some particular piece of knowledge that I haven't got. This can be either an aspect of the main research that needs more detail, or it can be something unforseen.

                            The level and scope of the research depends on its importance to the plot and, more, the theme of whatever it is I'm writing. And what I research can also be divided into two areas. The first is the 'abstract', if you like, which feeds into the theme, the setting, the 'purpose' (to use Donna's lovely term) and the overall 'why' of the book. The second is the practical, which is the mechanics of how the various physical elements of the plot work and how the characters go about their daily activities.

                            With fantasy, you have a degree of lattitude in that you're dealing with a created world rather than depicting an existing reality. But the fictional reality that you're creating has to be internally consistent and 'workable'. So researching real-world paradigms - historical or current - is still vital (how would a lift work in the absence of electricity, steam or other 'modern' power source? How did large medieval cities tend to organise themselves? How were mercenaries paid? etc.).

                            With The Perfection Engine the main up-front research derived from the theme I wanted to write about - the concept of 'perfection' and wabi sabi, the Japanese aesthetic which centres on the acceptance of transience and imperfection - and the main protagonist - who would embody (literally) that theme and whose lived experience and voice it's critical that I portray accurately, truthfully and sensitively... for the success of the story and, more importantly, for moral and ethical reasons. 

                            From the start, the intention was to write Membra as a 'standard' protagonist with no pre-judgment of what she could and could not do. The only rule is that for every action she takes, research or first hand experience has to provide either an existing 'real world' example of someone in a similar situation to her actually doing it, or, where that's not possible, whatever strategy she employs has to withstand a pretty rigorous feasibility check. She is allowed a very small degree of 'heroic exceptionalism' in borderline cases where the 'rule of cool' can be invoked without compromising believability.

                            The latter was, and still is, the biggest area of research, given that Membra's situation means that almost every single action that she takes, no matter how mundane, may require some level of explanation to the reader as to how she does it. Doing this, while still keeping the story about 'what Membra does' rather than 'how Membra does it', is a tricky balancing act.

                            I'm extremely fortunate to have a source of first-hand experience and knowledge to call on in this; someone who I've known for decades and who was both the instigator of and inspiration for Membra. She is invaluable for both practical advice and for insights into emotional and psychological aspects too. So sometimes the research is literally a quick email / phone call with a 'how would you...?' or an 'if you had to...?' question. Sometimes, though, it's a lot more time-consuming than that. But I've always rather enjoyed the research process... so it's not quite such an interruption as it might be.

                            How much of the research makes it into the actual text? As little as possible is my rule of thumb, and where it does have to appear I try and surreptitiously hide it in dialogue or specific verbs that convey what's happening without a blow-by-blow account. I don't always succeed though... and that's what editing (and honest feedback) is for! 😁 

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                            • I once started reading a novel set in Africa that had been recommended to me and was on bestsellers list. I was looking forward to enjoying a good story set in a place I've never been but would love to visit. So the african setting was all the more important to me.

                              Right on the opening chapter the author wrote that the characters were under an oak tree. An oak tree? In Africa? Impossible, oak trees would not survive there, they are native to northen climates with cold winters. I lost interest in the rest of the story. What else was incorrect?

                              And yet a simple google search for "african trees" would produce a huge list. The name of a real african tree would give realism and interest to the setting. Not hard to do.

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                              • image_transcoder.php?o=bx_froala_image&h=148&dpx=2&t=1593280277

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                                • I love the Baobad tree... someone should write a poem about it!

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                                  • I think you'll find that there are many African folklore stories, You should find a picture when it is in full bloom. 

                                    There is a story behind this particular photograph. We had been attending a regional exchange of experience workshop concerning engaging and empowering communities based on the methodology I had developed in South Africa. I don't want to appear to be boasting, but the young woman in the photograph(from Soweto)  was my assistant at the time. She had absorbed with enthusiasm the work I was doing and, in reality, took over many of my responsibilities, especially during the two-weeks/month that I was in Europe. When she saw the tree, she asked me to take the photograph stating "Roger I want this photo. You have helped me grow so much'. She later left her safe job in Government to continue what I had started. We still remain in contact and follows the progress of my daughter (budding actress) and my son. 

                                    She had told me of her story, father in the military arm of the ANC, mother part of the "peaceful movement". More importantly, the use of traditional concoctions to main or kill. A character based on her plays a small part in my novel. 

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                                  • It is nice to see how others go through work.

                                    I, myself, at the moment feel somewhat stuck in research. I started to write and then stopped because of the magic I put in the book. Like how would the world be different if there is teleportation? One of the "magics" I put in my book. And I put several of them.

                                    How the production, the distribution, the information, the communication, the meeting of any needs are done if there is teleportation? What professions there are? How are they called?

                                    So, I still make some notes on my book, write some pieces with characters, relationships, settings, backstories. But mostly I am stuck studying on how a thing or another is or could be done if there is a certain or another magic. I am stuck on building a socio-economic model for my book.

                                    It takes a lot of time and effort, but I can not go on without it. I strongly believe that I have to do it in order to write a book that is worth reading...

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                                    • Thank you! These are really good ideas!

                                      I have a similar thought. That is why I spend now a lot of time researching science. I thought I would give magic some limitations that are science based. Well... as much as would be able to. 😁

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                                      • Thank you so much! It is really helpful! I will definitely look it up!

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                                        • Thank you! I will definitely look it up!

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                                        • I follow a similar pattern to others.

                                          I write a lot of historical fiction (usually with some fantasy elements too) so I do a lot of research. I'm a history graduate so know a little about ancient Roman/Greek culture, a smattering of early modern European, Victorian. The combination makes for someone who can easily disappear down the warren of research and who is particularly picky about getting details right! If a particular area of the UK didn't have gas Street lighting until the year after my story is set, I won't sneak it forward to suit my fiction needs. Unnecessarily pedantic of me, I know.

                                          But even I admit we can't know everything, some details have to be invented.

                                          I'm writing a serial for a magazine at the moment set in the music hall of the early twentieth century, which has been fascinating to research. I read around the subject first and some of that had informed a plot thread.

                                          But my WIP is set during the winter of 1973/74 during the industrial action that caused the three day week so I've also been learning a lot about trade unions, 1970s politics, period music, TV, fashion, social attitudes, race riots... 

                                          As others have said, though, your research must be worn lightly. Years ago I read a commercially published medieval murder mystery where just in the opening chapter, there were lengthy explantations of parts of a castle, a gearing system, local bureaucracy. The in depth explanations we're unnecessary (I don't need to know how the gearing worked unless it relates to the plot) and slowed the action. The author was an historian by trade ... A lesson for me!

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                                          • I have a chapter set in Sardinia, a place I've never been. I like to set up my stories in real places that I know well, with real names of locations etc. But in choosing Sardinia I'll have to invent names or... go there myself to research?... Would love to, but a bit expensive. I might change the location or... keep it but make it a bit vague i.e. a small village resort in the south. I love the name Monticello for my village, but will google it, and if there is in fact a Monticello village in Sardinia, it's a No. No.

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                                            • I also use, including for places that I have visited/lived. It's a pity that it doesn't have maps for earlier decades. Although in the Ordnance Survey in the UK is quite useful. 

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                                              • Thanks Roger, I had done a very rushed check and didn't find any place named Monticello in Sardinia either, but there is one in Corsica, which is french territory. That's good news, because if there was a place with that name and I were to use it in my novel, someone would call out my bluff with something wrong about it. What I intend to do is use Monticello for my imaginary village but say as little about it as possible. The important thing is what happens there during an holiday.

                                                For another village in Portugal, the birthplace of Mariza, I'm using two real locations melded into one, and with a different name. I also use very common local old names for people, that nobody can really trace to any family. I think Thomas Hardy did something similar in his novels set in Dorset (but clever people have traced all his locations).

                                                In the unlikely event of my novel becoming popular, I wouldn't like people going there to check the farms & families. It would be hideous...

                                                In settings in London & Lisbon, I use real names of streets and squares and real descriptions. Anyone is welcome to go check where Mariza walked around... where she sat down, etc.

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                                                • If your book is popular enough, someone will create the landmarks you describe. (Need I mention a fractional platform?)

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                                                • I have invented a town in Chile as the centre of my soft sci-fi latest.  One of the same name exits in Spain but I reckon that's fair game.  Has the advantage I can populate and landscape it as I like

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                                                  •  I am a stickler for location authenticity, so I either write about places I know well, or spend far too long on Google earth and Street View getting a better picture of what the character would see if standing in a certain spot.
                                                    I am also a strong believer in getting professionals to help. People love being asked about their workplace activity.  In my novel I have a fight in the cockpit of a plane and I got some very useful input from various pilots about things like how the combatants bodies would place themselves in such a confined space. One of them said think of it  'like having a knife fight in a telephone box'. That image got me exactly where I needed to be!

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