Write On – Research. How much is enough?
Everyone has to do research. Even writers of contemporaries will occasionally have to look up police procedure, or how much a luxury yacht costs or what is the price of a room in the Waldorf, or what would really happen if you turned up in A&E with gunshot wounds etc etc. Writers of historicals know that research is essential and inescapable (and actually a great deal of fun). Even fantasy writers don’t get it all their own way. As I’ve said elsewhere, if a fantasy writer wants to convince me she knows all about dragons, she’d better get right things like how to lay a fire or shoot a bow – and that, if you don’t know it already, takes research too.
So, how much research should you do? How much is enough?
How long is a piece of string? On the one hand, no amount of research is ever enough. There will always be some little thing that you don’t know. There will always be something that some cunning reader trips you up about, because you thought you knew something that you didn’t, or you assumed something that turned out to be wrong.
Plus, of course, the more you know, the better. The more research you’ve done, the more embedded you are in that society and time, the more detail you can include, the more appreciation you will have for it, the more certainty and confidence you will have while writing, and the more authority you can speak with.
So on one hand you could research for ten years and not be finished. On the other hand, if you researched for ten years and never actually sat down and wrote the book, that would be too much. If you researched for two years and found, at the end of it, that you were so fed up of hearing about this subject that you didn’t want to write the book at all, that would also be too much.
I researched for two years before I wrote False Colors, but I was writing other Age of Sail stories at the time, and I was mostly ‘researching’ – by which I mean ‘reading fascinating books and learning new stuff which I really enjoyed’ for entertainment. I read it because I was interested and I wanted to know, not because I wanted to write a book. But of course when I did decide to write a book, all the research was there at my fingertips already.
This was a fortunate occurrence but not to be relied on to happen as a matter of course.
Research is a tricky thing. When I was writing Under the Hill, I thought I would research for a book set in WWII. This would be the book I wrote after I had finished the story in UtH. But the research turned out to be so interesting that I couldn’t wait to use it. It sneaked into UtH and made that a very different book than I had initially expected.
The conclusion I draw from this is that the timing of your research is also important. If you can research one book while writing another, well done you. If you can’t, that definitely puts a limit on the amount of time you have to do the research you need. If you’re trying to produce two or three (or four or five) books a year, and you have to do the research for each one immediately before you begin writing it, you’re probably limited to a month of deep immersion in research at best.
Of course, one way to get round this is to use a similar setting for several books. That way, you can research for six months and then rattle off three books on the strength of it, one after another without a delay.
If you have a strong attraction to one period of history, such that all you want to write for years is Regency romances, for example, then you’re set. You can learn as much as you need to write your first book in a few months or so, and you can continue to learn more and more as each book goes on, until eventually you will be a foremost expert on your period.
But if you want to do something different each time, you need to be satisfied with less research. It is simply not practicably possible to become an expert for every book. You need to become an expert in creating the illusion that you know what you’re talking about.
How to do this?
I suggest a short period of intensive immersion in reading anything and everything you can get your hands on about the era/subject you are learning. Give yourself a month to get all the books you can find out of the library, to read all of the websites and hunt down all the books in the bibliographies of the books you already have.
The first week is of necessity a week of the broad brush. Here you’re learning the shapes of what you don’t know – you’re learning where the gaps are that you have to fill. By the end of that week of indiscriminate reading, you will have an idea of where you need to look for more. I recommend that by the end of that week, you narrow down your century to an actual date. It’s much easier to find out what happened in 1742 than it is to find out what happened in the entire 18th Century.
Once you’ve got a grip on the basic details of the culture – what people wear, what they eat, what their houses look like, how they travel, what they live on, what they believe in – then you can begin to write.
Don’t at this point think that the research is over. It may take you four to six months to write your book. That’s four to six months more you have to read up about what you’re writing about. With editing and polishing and submission time, you may have a whole year to give yourself a crash course in your subject. By the end of a year spent reading up intensively on any subject you can usually know a decent amount about it, and until the book is actually being sent to the printers any mistakes can be still changed.
The reason I would start writing as soon as I had a broad overview of the culture in hand is this – you don’t know what you need to know until you know the needs of your story. Only if your hero is going on a carriage journey from Dorset to Inverness will you know that it’s vital to look up the state of the roads in Britain in [date]. If you did decide to research the roads on the off chance, and then he ended up taking ship from his home-town and spending the rest of the novel in the Bahamas, that would have been a waste of your time.
By writing and researching as you go along, you can make sure you’re focussed on the research which is most necessary to your story. Also, if you are writing at the same time as the research is permeating your consciousness, it will be most immediately in conversation with your muse. Your whole mind, intellect and creative powers alike, will be working together at what you’re doing, reinforcing each other.
To sum up, do as much research as you need to do to feel that you can create a reasonable simulacrum of this culture on the page. Then fill in the small details when you need to know them.
Or, do it in whatever way works for you, because if there’s one thing that’s become obvious while I’ve been writing this series of posts, it’s that there is no aspect of writing in which one fits all.