Research, that seems to be a big thing doesn’t it, research? Is it just homework for adults, something we have to do but won’t make any actual difference to what we achieve or is it important?
Especially in genre fiction, crime and historical fiction more than most, research seems to be a big thing. I can understand why it matters in historical fiction. If the protagonist of my novel is on his way to swop bon-mots with Oscar Wilde over a glass or two of absinthe then he or she really shouldn’t be checking their mobile for text messages. I’ve always loved history and read non-fiction books on various historical events and people on a regular basis but couldn’t class myself as an expert on any of them. I know these experts exist and I know the online comment world is full of ‘helpful’ suggestions of historical inaccuracies in books, plays, films and television shows, oh how the creators must love them! I’m sure we’ve all spotted such errors ourselves, you’re reading a book and something just doesn’t feel right, the characters wouldn’t have done that or said that, you feel. You might be right, you might be wrong but in either case the spell of the book is broken, temporarily at least.
Though what I really hate is the other extreme, someone who has obviously spent months if not years researching a particular historical period and will stop at nothing unless they can squeeze the maximum amount of said research into their book. I remember reading a particular book set in the 19th Century and commented to a friend at the time that I felt that hacking off at least two hundred pages would have greatly improved the story. TWO HUNDRED PAGES, and that was just a rough guess. The book was so full of detail that I forgot what the story was meant to be about and by the time I finished it I was beyond caring.
In the world of crime fiction there are those who go to great lengths to get specifics right, especially when it comes to forensic science. Now I can understand this to a degree, after all there’s so many stories involving the world of forensics than an error would shine out and be quickly picked up on. Likewise in the world of guns, an almost pornographic level of detail can be entered into when describing guns, different calibres, makes, sizes, colours even. Again the writer runs the risk of being ridiculed if they get the details wrong. After all, if the hero is an international hit-man for hire and doesn’t know their Glocks from their Smith and Wesson’s it won’t work. I can understand that.
But apart from the technical or historical detail there seems to be an interest in researching all aspects of a story, getting as much real life detail about a subject as possible before putting a word on the page. My initial reaction to this is usually:
IT’S FICTION. YOU’RE WRITING FICTION.
If you want to write non-fiction then go and do it. If you want to be a journalist then, again, go and do it. If you’re writing crime fiction then sit down and write FICTION. Now I’m not saying ignore any and all research, I’m just saying that there is enough information out there, readily available, so you don’t need to be asking the Gardaí or local police force how they do what they do and while you’re at it can you lock me up in a cell overnight for the craic.
There are newspapers, news shows on television and radio, shelves and shelves of true crime books, and have you heard about this new thing called the internet? Now I’m not really trying to be sarcastic, I just think there is enough information readily available, to hand, for free in a lot of cases, to provide the fuel to kick-start your story. I also think it’s a bit of a waste of time to ask the Gardaí, or your local police force, to provide information to you as research when they should be out doing other things.
It’s like this. Take for example the novel I’m working on now. I’ve just started but it’s basically about a man whose girlfriend has been murdered, how he reacts, how he deals with it and how he tries to live with it, all the while the investigation into her murder is on-going. I won’t go into any more detail but you get the basic idea. Now if I wanted to get a direct line of research on this how would I go about it? Would I ask the Gardaí the specific details of what happens in a murder investigation? Possibly. They might be very helpful detailing the procedures and duties of the investigation team, or they might tell me to fuck off and stop wasting their time as they have real investigations to carry out. So without the specific detail what am I to do?
Likewise, if I want to get the inside view of a murder, how does it feel to have a loved one taken from you in such a sudden and brutal way, what do I do? Do I read the newspapers, find out the latest such victim and go up and knock on their door, explain that I’m writing a crime novel and ask them to share the worst moment in their life with me? Bollocks I do.
Now I’ve intentionally chosen to write stories that aren’t police procedurals, in this case the investigation will be shown from the outside, so I’ll avoid the need to have detailed knowledge of a murder investigation. A cheat, well a little cheat perhaps, but my interest in the story is seeing how things happen through the eyes of the living victim, I don’t care how these operations are run, other books have been much better at detailing this work, I don’t feel the need to try to copy them.
Likewise with the victim, I couldn’t excuse asking someone to share their real life trauma for me to try to turn it into entertainment, to try to make money off it.
That’s why I prefer the secondary sources, news stories, occasionally true crime books. I just want to get the general feeling in my head, a general idea of what the experiences were like, I can write from there.
This brings up another problem I have with research. Like I said it’s called fiction, if I wanted to write fact I’d have become a journalist (stop laughing at the back). I like to just have some general facts about an event if I’m to write about it, too much and it becomes fixed in my head, I can’t do anything with it unless I copy it verbatim. The same thing applies to stories people tell me. It’s a fairly common thing, someone tells a writer a story and they go off and turn it into something else, a short story or a full blown novel. Fair play to them. I’ve tried things like that before, taken little stories I’ve heard or taken people I know and try to turn them into fiction. It doesn’t work, not with me anyway. The more detail I put in about a real person or event, the more it becomes fixed in space and time, any attempt by me to mould it into something new just collapses in a heap, it doesn’t work. Of course I’ve included real things I’ve heard, real people, real stories, in things I’ve written, but I can only use them sparingly, as colour to the broader story, nothing more, I can’t make them work as anything more than a little aside.
I’m sure other writers can take such things and do wonders with them, like a chef with a handful of random ingredients, some can make delicious dishes, I just end up with muck that needs to be thrown out.
The upside of this is, I suppose, for anyone I know, that I’m unlikely to take anything you tell me and turn it into a story. If you tell me that A met B and they did something to C then unless I report it as exactly as I can it’s useless to me, I can’t make it work any other way, it’s fixed. So I actually have to sit down and try to make stuff up on my own. The people in my life, for good or ill, are not here to provide background information for me. Basically if you don’t want to run the risk of me writing about something that happened to you tell me about it.
Now this doesn’t mean that I don’t get ideas from what I see around me, but that seems to be from secondary sources. Generally the best thing anyone with aspirations to write can do is keep their eyes open, there’s enough shit going down in the real world to keep us in material for generations.
There are fantastic writers out there who do the exact opposite to what I’ve been saying, been very successful with the types of stories that require great detail and intimate knowledge of the world’s they’re describing. I’ve been lucky, to an extent, so far, the stories I’ve wanted to write have never required these levels of research, I’ve tried to keep my stories small, intimate, I try to go inside the skull instead of outside into the big bad world.
What I want from research is to give me a framework. Once I get the general idea about what I’m going to write about I’m fine, as long as I don’t deviate too far from the real documented truth of a subject that’s more than enough for me.
I like to think of research as like scaffolding around the building. You need scaffolding of one kind of another when constructing a building but the whole point is that once the building is finished you take the scaffolding away and forget about it. Irrespective of how much scaffolding was required or how complicated it was once the building is finished you have to take it away. If I’m looking at a building and all I’m thinking about is the amount of scaffolding then the building fails
And here’s the thing, take two writers, both ending their story on death row in a prison in, say, Texas. One writer has travelled to Texas, spoken to the guards, managed to get a look inside the prison, seen the prisoners and how they live. The other has a vague idea of what death row would look like, based on movies, some documentaries, and a couple of books. Now unless you’re one of the relatively few people who have seen this death row you’re not going to be able to tell the difference in their work. You’ll make your judgement based on who you feel described a place you’ve never been better, essentially who is the better writer. And maybe that’s enough.
Well, that’s my excuse anyway.
(Though, of course, if I even got my researching shit together I’ve a KILLER idea for a historical crime novel, . . ., ah well)