I love research. I take a nerdish delight in it. When I’m writing, I want everything in my story to be right. If that means digging through books, or searching the Internet, to find the information I need, then I’m more than willing to do so. I should be writing, of course. Except I can’t write if I don’t know what I need to know, if I can’t make sure it’s absolutely spot-on.
I don’t think I’m capable of writing a story in which I can “make it up as I go along”. I have come to accept that. The nearest I managed, ‘Killing the Dead’ in Postscripts 20/21 Edison’s Frankenstein, was set on an entirely invented generation starship. But I couldn’t let it go there. I had to pick a real destination for the ship, and calculate the length of time the journey would take. But even that didn’t do the trick. So I structured the story according to Dante’s Inferno, and borrowed imagery from it; which gave me a topic to spend hours happily researching.
I have in the past bought a copy of a long-out-of-print and scarce book – see here – so I could read up on something that appeared in a story I was writing. My story ‘Barker’ (see here) required a lot of research into the history and personalities of the early decades of the Space Race. Because everyone in the story except the title character was a real historical person. Fortunately the subject fascinates me and I already own a large number of books on it. See my Space Books blog. And yes, the flash fiction I posted there, ‘The Old Man of the Sea of Dreams’, also required a great deal of research too.
The story I’m currently working on – ironically, a fantasy – has had me researching Supermarine Spitfires and Vickers Wellington bombers. The protagonist is a RAF pilot during World War II, and I wanted to make sure I had all the details of flying those aircraft correct. I could have finessed it, I suppose – a few general piloting terms, perhaps, and then on with the story. But that would be cheating. It wouldn’t convince me.
And, without that research, how else would I have learnt that the the first item in the Vickers Wellington Pilot’s Notes Check list before landing is “Auto-pilot.. .. .. cock–OUT”? I kid you not. See page 25 here.
Another story, as yet unpublished, has one section featuring an Alvis Scorpion Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked), so I hunted around until I found a copy of a book about the vehicle. Because I needed to get the terminology right.
Amanda Rutter of Floor to Ceiling Books asked on Twitter today “What book do you wish you had written?” She gave The Last Unicorn by Peter S Beagle, for its “simply gorgeous prose”, as her answer. I could have named something by Lawrence Durrell, whose prose I certainly admire the most. Or perhaps a science fiction novel that blew me away when I first read it. Or something by one of the my favourite sf writers. Instead, I picked Ascent by Jed Mercurio, because his intense and immediate, and closely-researched, style is how I’d like to write myself.
As a reader I want to know what it’s like, what it feels like, to be there. I want details. I am, after all, reading these books to explore other places, people and times – real or invented. And the last thing I want is glib one-line descriptions, or the distracting blur of authorial hand-waving. I feel novels should have bibliographies – and many novels do include a page of “Further Reading”. I have a work-in-progress which currently has twenty-five titles in its bibliography. It has, I admit, taken a long time to write. I hope it’ll be worth the effort.
I’ve wittered on about this subject before, but that’s because it’s something dear to me. True, fiction is not non-fiction. Nor should it try to be. But neither is it a failure of the imagination to research something heavily before writing about it.
February 15, 2011 at 6:08 pm
I think it is good to be accurate. There are some readers who, upon finding one small inaccuracy, just get turned off and put the book down.
My first two novels involved very detailed descriptions of brain functions to support the story. I had to get that right.
Reminds me…when researching a school that my character attended, I found the name of a specific professor on the internet and I used it in the story – just spelled it backwards!
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