Thursday, 21 August 2014

Week Seventeen: Researching Your Novel

Every novel requires some form of research, even if it's only where you might buy a ribbon for an old typewriter like this. Sounds like detective work? It has its moments ...

Every novel needs to be researched, not just stories set in bizarre or exotic locations, or historical novels. If you already know your world well - you work or live there, for instance - this research may be minimal. But you will still need to allocate time to do it. For instance, does your fictitious law firm share its name and location with a real-life company? Better change that, or you risk being sued. And how many doors does that particular make of hatchback have?

Basic tips include: keep a notepad at the ready, in case you spot an answer to a riddle while out and about, or hear an interesting fact on television; keep copious, detailed notes of all your research, preferably in one place (I learned this the hard way); if taking notes from the internet or a book, keep a note of URLS, article titles and author names, page numbers and full publishing details (remember to do this even when you cut and paste, so you can refer back to that website if you later need more details or are compiling a list of acknowledgements or a bibliography). Also, importantly, if a fact is vital to your story, double or indeed triple-check it with a respected source. Don't just accept Wikipedia's version, in other words!

Try to research in a meaningful way. If you're looking up a fact about handguns, don't get sidetracked into reading three chapters on field artillery, however fascinating. Don't let research become a fetish.

Some facts can be easy to research or double-check. A few clicks and you have that missing data. But for complicated settings, especially historical ones, you may need to compile a vast wealth of accurate, double-checked details, some of them hard to discover in the first place. Sometimes thorough research may be your only path to a finished manuscript. Sometimes you can type Chapter One with an easy conscience, and deal with issues as they come up.

So how to go about this?

I can't write this novel yet. I don't even know what my main protagonist's surname should be. He's Russian, born 1947, his father was a political prisoner ... Time to hit the books!

Research First, Write Later
Some writers prefer to do their research before they begin the novel. That way, all the information they need is close at hand. They can plan a book, secure in the knowledge that their plot hinges on a particular stagecoach journey time in 1823; not only have they checked that timetable, they know all the inns along the way, what kind of meals they might have offered a weary traveller, and even how the coach driver would have been dressed.

But this method - research-first, write-later - holds considerable dangers for the unwary writer.

If you think research is more entertaining than the hard work of writing the actual novel, and have not set yourself a cast-iron deadline for beginning to write, you may find yourself drifting. One month, two months, three ... and the novel is never started. In the end, you may find you've spent a whole year on researching the minutest detail of your proposed story, and are now so bored by it, you chuck it over for some new, as yet unresearched idea.

To avoid this danger, decide beforehand when you are going to start writing the novel - and stick to it! Anything you don't know by then will have to be researched on the hoof. Which brings me to method number two for researching a novel.

Researching on the Hoof
Those impatient to start chapter one may well decide they know enough to begin writing without further research. Hopefully these are not delusional types whose efforts will soon end in disaster, but those who have prior experience of writing about this world or location - or are in the category I mentioned above, i.e. they know it intimately because it's their everyday world. My own preference is for plunging in at page one, perhaps after a cursory check on date, time, location for my story, then researching on the hoof, i.e. as I write.

The method is simple.

You're writing an historical novel, and your protagonist is changing her dress. You can't recall what might have been worn to an informal soiree in the late Regency. Or you know the gown, but not the shoes. What would they have looked like? For my Tudor stories, I have used the internet and also fantastic book and website resources like The Tudor Tailor to ensure my descriptions of clothes for various social classes are as accurate as possible. So to check those facts, to get each tiny detail correct, you stop work for a few minutes - hopefully not more than an hour! - and do your specific research. Then get back to the job of writing.

Visiting Locations
Whichever method you use, if you need to visit a certain location for your book - a local factory, for example, or an area of London - you will need to plan ahead. There's no good visiting after you've written that scene, as seeing a place with your own eyes may completely change your approach. If it proves expensive - for instance, involving a trip abroad - try to find a way to use that location again. That way you're getting more than one book for the cost of a single research trip.

Take notes and photographs, which should be as exhaustive as possible. Write down what you photographed and in which order so you can readily identify your shots later. Buy postcards, guide books, local maps. Grab secret candid shots of the locals for your own use. Making your own film on an iPhone or camera is also advisable if you need to really capture the atmosphere or remember how you got from A to B. After all, you don't know when you will be able to return there. (You could even share it on Youtube and social media, and get a little advance publicity for your project.)

Don't simply wander a location though, taking notes and photographs. You're a novelist, which means you need to write in the narrative voice of a person who is actually in that location, at a certain time, doing particular things. So approach your visit as if you are that person. Imagine where he or she would stand or sit, how they might act, what kind of smells and sights and textures they might experience. Make notes later, if you like, but that part may need to be deeply internalised. Drawn into yourself and experienced through the senses of your narrator, in other words. And that's something no external fact-finding can replicate.

Plus, don't forget that research is a legitimate tax-deductible expense if/when your book is published. So even if you don't have a contract yet, keep all receipts from research trips and general expenses.

When writing THE QUEEN'S SECRET, I was lucky enough to live only a few miles from Kenilworth Castle, where all the action takes place in 1575. Being a 'local' meant I was able to visit the location frequently, check all my facts personally, and really soak up the atmosphere.

Writers' Resources
Never underestimate the usefulness of long library visits, especially to specialist libraries - though getting a Reader's Ticket may be tricky - or a good research book written by an expert, but the internet is where you're likely to find most nuggets of information quickly. It's also great for turning up odd information, the kind that's hard to pinpoint in a book. The toilet habits of medieval princes, for instance.

Join groups on Facebook in your chosen field, or on Goodreads, or an informative group blog like English Historical Fiction Authors - anywhere people gather to exchange information. If really stuck, try a shout-out on Twitter and hope people retweet your request for information until someone turns up an answer or a possible resource to try. Social media is a great place to ask research questions, so make friends with other people interested in your research area. Some historical programme presenters are actually on Twitter and might reply to a question or two, if you're polite and not pushy.

And get yourself a Youtube account, or browse there. If you can't visit a location, you may find it's already on film on Youtube - someone's amateur holiday film, perhaps, or a genuine expert's view, perhaps compiled themselves or a snippet from a television programme. It's free, and it all helps.

Employing the Writer's Flannel
Sadly, it's not always possible to find the fact you need, or not at the time you need it. In that case, you may need to use 'writer's flannel' to bypass your problem. This is a kind of textual shuffle, a little narrative sleight-of-hand, whereby you appear to have used a fact, but have actually sidestepped it. In other words, when in doubt, write around the unknown fact and hope nobody notices. They probably won't. 'Her shoes pinched' is better for conjuring up an atmosphere than a detailed description of the stitching and fabric of a pair of Regency shoes.

There can be such a thing as too much research, often evidenced by large wodges of barely digestible information or description. The ideal is to digest it all yourself, then only use a small percentage of what you know, keeping the rest on hand so that you sound like an authority on the subject, yet never bore the reader with your excess of knowledge.

Queen Victoria finished her slice of plum cake and glanced at the text message alert on her iPhone ... wait, that doesn't sound right. Oh hell, no one will notice!

Finally, remember that no one version of history, or indeed any other 'fact', is the definitive one. Some facts and dates may be reasonably solid and easily verified: when Queen Victoria died, when the First World War began, the current members of the cabinet etc. But most 'facts' are rather more slippery than that. How long is a piece of string, how many minutes to soft boil an egg? Bear this simple truth in mind when taking notes: just because the writer of an article or book is respected as an expert and has letters after their name does not mean their version of the truth is the most accurate one. We all have opinions and biases, and that includes 'experts'.

I repeat: trust no one. Do your research, double and triple-check it, then write what you believe to be the truth. Oddly enough, that's all anyone else can do too.

QUESTION: do you prefer to research beforehand or on the hoof? Does it jar you out of a book when you spot a fact that's wrong?


  1. On the hoof - things always come up that you hadn't thought of anyway. And yes, it really jars when somebody gets something wrong. The other day I was reading a book about an antiquarian book collector who happened to be looking for a rare collection of Dorothy L Sayers first editions. During which, she referred to the "Duke of Devon". I gnashed my teeth. (Prize to the first person who spots it!)

  2. Thanks, Lesley. Should be Duke of Devonshire?

    Personally it really depends on the author where mistakes are concerned. Some authors can make a mistake and I will smile indulgently and continue reading; with others, it confirms my belief that they are mutton-heads. So I wonder if it's about trust, at heart. If you trust a favourite author and they slip up, it's okay, you can forgive them, and it may even be a little endearing. But when you already distrust the author's voice, it's one more nail in the coffin!


    1. Duke of Denver, actually! Yes, I agree. All down to your trust inthe author.

  3. Great info here, Jane.
    I research on the hoof which makes starting a novel slow. But once I have the story in my head (or an idea of where I am headed at least) I prefer to get stuck in and fact check later. I highlight things I'm not sure about so that I won't forget to check them. I get caught out, sometimes, though - thank God for copy editors!

  4. Thanks, Nuala, I'm the same. Write first, research when I need to. Thanks for commenting!


Thank you for joining the 52 Ways debate by commenting!

If signing in via the anonymous option, it would be useful if you could mention your real/writing name or nickname, so that if anyone wants to respond to your comments, they can address you directly.

Many thanks, Jane Holland