I’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:
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.
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.