Research: the Ultimate Displacement Activity?

research def for webI’ve been thinking a lot about research lately. In the past I’ve never been a fan. Research hasn’t come easily to me – I’ve found it a slog, like studying for an exam I need to pass in a subject I don’t enjoy. The real fun is in making things up. After all, that’s why I write fiction.

But I want my stories to ring true within their fictional world and so they mustn’t ring false just because I’ve been too lazy to check my facts. One way around this problem is to follow that well-known advice and ‘write what you know’ by manipulating information, settings and situations from my own experience. Then if I need to do a bit of research the quickest route is generally Google, or something similar (other search engines are available).

This approach has worked pretty well so far, but my current story has burst its banks and is looking more like a novella and, if I am to maintain credibility at a much higher word count, I’m going to need a much better understanding of a number of subjects. So I’ve spoken sternly to myself and resolved to take my research more seriously.

However, I’m discovering that research can be dangerous:

war books for webDanger No. 1: How interesting, I must know more… (or No Time Left To Write!)

So much to read, so little time. My interest in warfare had always been confined to WW1 poets and Sebastian Faulkes, but now, among other things, I need a grounding in both the Falklands conflict and the battlefields of Northern France and I’ve discovered the marvellous Naval and Military Press (read more here). ‘War is War’ by Ex-Private X was a real page-turner, and so is Tony Banks’ ‘Storming the Falklands’. How can I possibly find time for writing with so much to read?

Danger No. 2: Ooops my research is showing! (or Aren’t I the Clever One?)

There is a very famous best-seller that begins with the hero being driven through a well known European city at night. The landmarks he passes are listed in such detail I wanted to get out my map and prove the author wrong. I know that’s a perverse reaction – the book is a best seller for the very good reason that many millions (yes millions) of people have enjoyed it. I enjoyed it too, but the author’s research was so openly on display it annoyed me, distracted me and stopped me engaging with the plot.

As I said before, I’ve never been very good at research. But this time around I’m really rather proud of myself; I’ve been working very hard and I’d like to make the most of all I’ve learned. The trick will be to use my knowledge to make my story authentic without producing an exhaustive (and exhausting) list of period detail. I’ll report back on how that’s going at a later date – if I ever find the time to write the thing.

artists rifles for webNo. 3: Now here’s something I’d REALLY like to write about (or What Was it I was Supposed to be Doing?)

Research definitely has its upside. Over half term I had the excuse to spend three hours (yes three whole hours over half term) at Southampton Art Gallery mooching around an exhibition of paintings and other work by soldiers of the 38th Middlesex Regiment, otherwise known as the Artists’ Rifles (read more about the regiment here and the exhibition here). I made pages and pages of notes about the early members: William Morris, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman-Hunt, Edward Burne-Jones and John Everett Millais – almost all of those pages completely irrelevant to the task in hand. Fortunately I did remember just before I left the gallery to do this very bad sketch of a WW1 tunic.


I could go on and on about the other dangers of research, such as the desire to immerse myself in other people’s ghost stories or the danger of inadvertently producing a travel guide to Northern France. My main concern is that research is becoming the ultimate displacement activity: time consuming, yet comfortably guilt free – well, it’s not as if I’m skiving, I’m really working very hard.

But I won’t go on and on. I’ve done with blogging for this month – I need to get on with my research now.



6 thoughts on “Research: the Ultimate Displacement Activity?

  1. Very true. I often spot the “I’ve done some research” in novels – the worst I remember was a Barbara Cartland (I was working in a library and wanted to see why her books flew off the shelves) where she inserted 10 pages of travelogue when her heroine arrived in India. One problem is how to explain things to the reader which are supposed to be already known to the character. Next problem: Introducing new things are good but research from history/ books often leaves out the things that bring a scene to life – the sounds, smells etc. it is often the little observations that indicate if this is something the author knows well or has just read up on, especially if it might be something/ somewhere the reader may know. Problem 3: distances and time. If you don’t know a place, check how long it would have taken to get from one place to another. I read a novel recently set in 1720 where some characters travelled from Cornwall to bath in less than a day! And in that famous novel half the readers tried to work out if it were possible to do all that in a day! As for too much research – some would say there’s no such thing, you never know when it might come in use in the future and the more you know the more natural your narrative will be. Good luck!

    • Good point about the travel problem, Hazel. and yes, if I immerse myself in research it will make my narrative more natural – but how will I ever drag myself out of these lovely books to write my own?

  2. I am not sure whether research for a novel can make stories more natural. It think i really depends on how embedded the knowledge becomes. I am researching synaesthesia ( at the moment as we (UMCM) are going to create concerts next year around the theme of the senses. I just read a fictional account that was so realistic. I am now reading a factual book and it is erudite but it is no fun!
    I am also reading “Les Miserables” after reading “Tale of Two Cities”, as I am attempting to understand the history of the French Revolution through fiction first. This isn’t anything related to my stories, but rather a catching up on learning. At the moment I have so many threads racing around in my head that I can’t pin them down at all, so I am following some of them to let them settle. I doubt very much I shall write about the French Revolution, but I will be able to discuss it a little bit when I have a complete enough package in my fluffy brain.
    I am needing actually to stick at the job of getting agent/publisher, so I think this is why stories are lying down latent at the moment and not pouring out onto page. This explains my current research mode.

    • Hi, Lizzie, nice to hear from you.

      Synaesthesia? Now there’s a fascinating subject, your project sounds very interesting. I find it hard to read ‘fact’ books unless I have a particular need to find something out, much easier to read novels or watch films set in the period or around the theme.

      Good luck with your search for an agent/publisher!

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