Book writing – how far does author research need to go?

It is self-evident that the more an author puts into a story, the more a reader will get out of it. Solid research will underpin the credibility of what lies between the covers of a book and help build the trust of those who are paying to be entertained and informed.

Research leads to writer-confidence in relating key information or capturing the atmosphere of a setting. More than that, it informs the reader by adding to his/her knowledge bank (no matter how subliminal). To do it properly, however, requires a balanced approach and an eye for what is important as opposed to what can be little more than window dressing.

I was once told that just because you know the detail of something doesn’t mean you have to bore the pants of everyone by telling them how clever you are. It’s all very well, for example, that you may know the precise calibrations and mathematic formulae for manufacturing a car engine but do your readers really want to spend time reading about it in a romantic novel, or, for that matter, any other kind of novel?

The stick-to-what-you-know approach to writing is as sound now as it was whenever whoever said it first said it. Most first-time writers are encouraged to stay within the comfort zone of knowing their subjects and knowing their locations. It’s when you stray outside these areas that research is essential.

I was fascinated to read a few months back that Stephen Leather spent 18 days travelling from Malaysia to Southampton on one of the world’s largest container ships as part of the research for his novel Fair Game. Much of the action centres on a pirate takeover of a similar vessel and Leather wanted to get first-hand experience of life aboard one of these giants. The result pours out of every page, with a depth of detail only possible from this kind of commitment.

But is this devotion the exception rather than the norm?

My first encounter with detailed research seeping out through every age of an action thriller was in the works of Alastair MacLean (he of Where Eagles Dare, among many brilliant bequests to our literary enjoyment). Modern day examples are rife, probably none more so that R.J. (Roger) Ellory, who is feted for a painstaking attention to detail that puts the reader into the centre of his stories.

And wasn’t it Frederick Forsyth who spotted a fatal flaw in UK records of births, marriages and deaths (what we tired old newspaper hacks used to refer to as hatches, matches and despatches)? The ease with which he secured a birth certificate and subsequent passport for his lead man in The Day of The Jackal subsequently led to a change in the law!

Let’s look at an example. If your story involves prison life it is essential you get a feel for it. The best place to start is by interviewing those who have been inside. Prepare a detailed set of questions in advance. Don’t ask a general “what’s it like” question but probe for detail such as typical prison routines – lock-up times, exercise times, work details. Find out about prison menus, and the extent to which cigarettes and drugs are traded. Find out how prison hierarchal systems work among inmates, and the relationships between the cons and the warders. Most of all, find out how men cope with the privations, the loss of freedom, and their feelings when long summer days make them imagine doing ‘normal’ things like going to the beach. These things add useful insight.

All this detailed research is naturally superfluous if the mention of prison takes up little time in your story. We’ve all seen enough films and TV dramas to be able to conjure up short references to prison and then move on to the real meat on our story.

To date I’ve been able to concentrate my scenes on places I’ve visited throughout the British Isles, and in Europe and America. At the time of these visits I was careful to note things that might be of future interest – things like road and rail links, and what lies beyond the usual tourist routes. Weaving these experiences into a story makes me feel a sense of accomplishment.

I’m a big fan of research – but don’t be daunted by it. It’s never too late to start looking around places with a different eye. You’re a writer, that’s what we do! The next time you go on holiday look out for ‘locations’ for your next book. Take notes about the buildings, the traffic, the people, the wildlife, anything to enrich a future reader experience.

There’s nothing wrong with ‘desktop research.’ Using a variety of online tools (search engines, Google Earth, Wikipedia etc.) to help with accuracy and clarity is ultimately better than guesswork or assumptions. It you can match this with real-life or first-hand experiences you’ve got it made.

Many years ago I undertook desktop research on more than fifty popular handguns. I read the specifications voraciously until I felt I could strip any model apart and rebuild it with my eyes blindfolded. Yeah, right! It was only when I was invited to a gun club and was introduced, up close and personal, to the modern pistol that I truly understood its raw power and dangers.

I tried to fire a 44 Magnum and got my eyes opened – actually I would have put them out if the instructor had not made me hold my hands away from my body. The recoil took the weapon back beyond my head! After firing three rounds I had to admit I couldn’t continue. It was that that powerful.

Now, when I read a piece about a hero or villain fast-drawing a 44 and casually loosing off six rounds, I have to ask myself: do you think the author did his research? Well, do you?

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14 Responses to Book writing – how far does author research need to go?

  1. Haktan says:

    Okay why have I been away from your blog for so long?!! That black and white one that looks like film is a favorite!! And you are soooo very weoclme for the invite, you have helped me so much thank you! I have learned so much Adriana was such a fun senior

  2. Pingback: The Fine Art of Bull: Research and Selective Memory «

  3. George Hamilton says:

    This is a great and timely post for me, Joe, as I have just completed the research for my next novel. I have tried a new approach, where I do the main research after I have written the first draft. This I think helps to hone the research to what is really needed to build authenticity and atmosphere in the novel, without cramming it with superfluous details. I am now writing the second draft of the novel and incorporating the research. I have posted about this new approach at my blog: Author’s Research – before or after the first draft of your manuscript?

  4. P.I. Barrington says:

    Love this post and I rarely read one all the way through! I agree most wholeheartedly with your opinion on research, especially where guns are concerned! I have some research underway now and am trying to corral it into what I need to give setting and back story.
    Good job Joe!

  5. Paul O'Brien says:

    Great blog Joe. I love research myself and find that good research can separate your work from all the other work out there. I think some writers can get overly enthusiastic about the info that’ve learned though, and insist on cramming it in at the detriment of their story.

    • Joe McCoubrey says:

      Paul – the background detail and information you crammed into ‘Blood Red Turns Dollar Green’ makes the story come alive. It should serve as a yardstick as to how information can be used in an informative and interesting way.

  6. Kevin Taggart says:

    Great blog as usual Joe. Good to see R.J.Ellory finally getting the recognition he deserves!

    • Joe McCoubrey says:

      Kevin – R.J.’s research and attention to detail is legendary. That’s why he injects so much realism into his stories.

  7. Brad Fleming says:

    A valid question Joe. I guess I’m lucky – I enjoy research. I was once told that if one reader in a thousand picks up on a mistake in your work then you haven’t done your checks and research properly. Happily, if one reader in a thousand takes the trouble to say he’s enjoyed your book that more than compensates.

    • Joe McCoubrey says:

      Brad – I agree. It doesn’t make much sense for an author to guess at things when there’s so much research material available at his/her fingertips. In the end though you can’t beat hands-on experience or knowledge.

  8. Hermine Strand says:

    The first paragraph sounds like academic writing. Are you an academic? One thing that helps a writer is what John Irving called “selective memory”–the ability to pick out details you can later use in a novel without actively trying to do it. In any other walk of life that leads to what college students call “bull,” especially when writing essays. It can’t be a substitute for genuine in-depth knowledge. But for a novelist, selective memory can be extremely useful. The novelist doesn’t need to be an expert; he just needs his prose to suspend the reader’s disbelief. Selective, authentic details gleaned naturally during the novelist’s recharge periods between work do the job quite well.

    • Joe McCoubrey says:

      Hermine – no, not an academic, just a humble author. I like your reference to “selective memory” – it’s probably used more than is recognised by many authors. Many thanks for the input.

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