I don’t do research for any of my novels or stories.
A part of me, as I typed the above, felt a sense of guilt. It’s received wisdom these days – and, for all I know, always has been – that a fiction writers must assiduously research the background to their works in order to present a credible ‘world’ to their readers. After all, if you’re writing about a World War II fighter pilot, isn’t it wise to have read up on what it’s like to be a fighter pilot? And that goes for any other specialist profession or area of expertise, of course. To lend greater fidelity to one’s visions, research is essential.
Nevertheless, the idea of researching whatever I’m about to write fills me with foreboding, and often works to kill a project stone dead before it’s off the ground. In my early days as a writer I’d give in to this impulse and reads scads on whatever I was to write about – and the result was not, as I’d hoped, a work which embodied the epitome of a subject, a novel of which readers said, “Did you really trek from Kathmandu to Tibet, surviving a yak attack on the way…?” but an over-researched lump of stodge that was dead on the page and was bogged down with boring, factual info-dumps. You see, once you’ve done the research, it’s hard not to use it. (Try reading the novels of Arthur Hailey and Dennis Wheatley, if you don’t believe me.)
Over the years I’ve become so averse to doing any research that I think my subconscious filters out – at a very early stage – any nascent projects that might require research. So that what’s left, what rises to the surface of my consciousness, are projects which require no prior reading at all.
I’ve read loads of baloney about “Doing Your Research”, usually in writing manuals, or online – articles which encourage the beginning writer to research aspect of what they’re writing about. This is all very well if you’re writing a historical novel, but even so I’d much rather encourage a writer to concentrate on more important aspects of fiction than factual verity – psychological fidelity, say, and the importance of plot mechanics. For most novels research – if needed at all – is something that can be done when the important aspect of a book, the story and characterisation, are in the bag. Don’t put the cart before the horse.
Of course, when I’ve finished a couple of drafts of a novel, I’ll check a few facts. But the odd things is that I find, on looking back at the process of writing a book, that in many cases I’ve scored the red pen through these facts, having found that they’re not germane to the tale I’m telling.
Now… all the above is not to say that research is necessary in some cases, but I am saying that be careful not to over-research and laden your novel with indigestible wodges of fact.
I often wonder at my disinclination to do research, and I think it’s something to do with my aversion to what is perceived as ‘fact’. What matter to me are not facts, but the truth as perceived by me, the author, and by my characters. I harbour the desire to one day write a short story in which everything in the tale is ‘wrong’: the facts are wrong, the physics are wrong, the science is wrong, even the grammar is wrong – but the whole adds up to a startling, shining truth.
I’ve been thinking about this on and off of the best part of thirty years, and I still haven’t worked out quite how I’ll achieve the feat.
This piece first appeared on the Rising Shadow website.