Wednesday, 25 January 2012


(An old post this, but one, as I begin research for the next book, that resonates.)

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 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, understanding facets that aren't easily delineated, was, I believe, unrivalled. Even the subject matter I felt some small expertise in, I tried where I could to experience first hand.

As for the darker elements of the book, it was certainly tempting to google my way through. Instead, so that I could do my character justice, I sought people who’d gone through what she had. 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 Professor Brian Cox (I expect he's busy, though) 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.


Julia Bohanna said...

I studied method acting under an American called Jack Waltzer, who had in turn been taught by Lee Strasburg. It was amazing the lengths that a method actor would go to get into the part - to really feel the moment. The acting method consists of finding the emotion from a real place, a real experience. You can break down, you can be terribly affected by it - but then, when Jack said 'Say the goddamn line - you have to suddenly be in control of speaking and very conscious of cannibalising your own vulnerability. Christian Bale starved himself in The Machinist. Weight gain or loss - the extreme end of it - is pretty common in acting roles. But some method actors love to remain in character all the time, even terrifying their family. That way madness lies.

At least with writers, we can hold back a part of ourselves and largely be the voyeurs. Imagine stepping into something and being stuck, like banging on a glass coffin inside yourself.

TOM VOWLER said...

I think Bale (who went from 12 to 8 stone for the role) then had to beef up for Batman a few months later.