Sunday, 9 May 2010


Some writers love research; others see it as procedural, essential collation before the creative floodgates can part. As a former journalist, I enjoy the immersion into other worlds, gaining a flavour of lives only previously imagined. I don’t think you can ever research a subject too much. Most of the nascent knowledge won’t grace your prose, but it might inform character in nuanced, unconscious ways. Many authors (Proulx comes to mind) live entirely among the cultures and peoples of their fiction during composition, imbuing them with firsthand experience of such worlds. The temptation, when almost anything can be researched by the click of a mouse, must be to bypass such a naturalistic approach, but you do so at your writing’s peril.

In this novel what I’ve all but finished, there are many subjects I had little or no knowledge of, and whereas I began reading about them, it soon became clear I needed to spend time with people who did. One of my characters is a potter. Now I’m sure the wonderful Interweb has several million pages on every aspect of ceramics, just waiting for me to trawl through in the early hours. But the time I spent watching someone at a wheel actually making pots, listening to them as they worked, was, I believe, unrivalled. Even the subject matter I felt some expertise in, I tried where I could to experience the most apposite, well, experiences available to me.

As for the dark matter (those of you who’ve read any of my fiction will know I’m not much interested in saccharine or sentimentalism), it was certainly tempting to google my way through it. Instead, so that I could do my character justice, I sought people who’d gone through what she has. Tentatively I asked for help, and was overwhelmed by people’s bravery and generosity. Asking some of those questions wasn’t easy, but then this business isn’t supposed to be. As a result I feel my character has an authenticity she wouldn’t otherwise have had. She has come to life. She is real.

So whereas we don’t have to trudge to the library for much of our research nowadays, I’d say the next time you’re reading about quantum physics or yoga or S&M or gambling or murder on wikipedia or some such, think about the richness of exposure that will give you. Would a pint with Stephen Hawking (or equivalent) lend your research that extra dimension? A week on a yoga retreat? A day in the bookies? (I’ll leave you to fill in the others.)

You owe it to your readers, to yourself, to your story, but most of all to your character to occupy as much of their world as is possible. And legal.


Anna-Marie said...

Haha, I like your title. story is one of those tricky ones that I definitely don't want to be experiencing for myself. It would come under the category of illegal and/or immoral.
But I do love the research part. So much so that I am finding it hard to stop with the research and start with the actual joining together of sensible sentences.

TOM J VOWLER said...

Joining together of sensible sentences is rather overrated as an activity, I find, AM. :)


I love research and actively engage in it when possible. But I did one novel to death with it - it just collapsed under the weight of my knowledge on the subject and I couldn't get it to lift off the page. 2 years work down the Swannee. I'd still love to find out how to write that book...

TOM J VOWLER said...

I know what you mean, Nuala; it's a balance to be struck, I suppose.