As I regard the enormous mound of books I’ve already read in preparation for my third novel, I find myself wondering: am I doing all this research in order to immerse myself in the world of my characters, or am I just putting off writing the darned book?
I think any writer of historical fiction would agree that research is important. You have to understand the period about which you’re writing, and it’s by evoking a realistic world that you draw the reader into your story. But how much research should you do? Should you research in depth before you begin, or only as you go along? Crucially, how do you avoid getting lost down a research hole?
An entirely unscientific survey confirms that writers approach their research in completely different ways.
Catherine Hokin says, 'I research masses at the start and then it's ongoing as I realise what I don't know.' Laura Shepherd-Robinson starts by reading one or two books for inspiration while planning and plotting. 'Then I stop researching altogether when I write the first draft, only doing more if I need it for the plot.' Claire Fuller says, 'I never research before I start. Just little bits as I go along.' Meanwhile Ben Johncock advises researching ‘as much as you need, that is: as little as possible’, and Linda Stratmann says, 'I don't decide in advance. I go where it takes me and have fun along the way.'
Many have fallen down the research hole. Rowan Coleman admits to spending an entire day researching 17th century bee keeping for a single paragraph. SD Sykes spent two days investigating 14th century Venetian chimneys, or rather the lack of them. Where did the smoke go? She never found out. Nor did the point make it into her novels. William Sutton read a biography of Henri Dunant and two biographies of Disraeli for a novel that ultimately featured one conversation with Disraeli and nothing at all about Dunant. I myself spent months researching 19th century convict ships for my first novel, The Unseeing, only to throw out almost the entire section that was set on a convict ship.
Even the great Hilary Mantel acknowledges it can be difficult to let go of the facts and move on to the fiction. In her first BBC Reith Lecture she noted, 'I didn’t like making things up, which put me at a disadvantage. In the end I scrambled through to an interim position that satisfied me. I would make up a man’s inner torments, but not, for instance, the colour of his drawing room wallpaper.'
Research, plot, write, research
My own approach is to do quite a large amount of research at the outset in order to spark story ideas, to feel reasonably confident about the world I'm creating, and to be able to map out the broad plot. I want to be sure that my plot and my outline characters are plausible and don't lead to months of rewriting further down the line. (Although of course there are always months of rewriting further down the line).
Then, as I write the terrible first draft, I note down further questions that I need to answer. I try to avoid doing too much research during my writing time, as it's far easier to research than it is to write, and I find that my two hours' writing time has somehow morphed into two hours reading (and tweeting) about some obscure and ultimately irrelevant point.
How to drag yourself out of the research hole
Having fallen down into Wonderland, how do you climb back out?
- Set a word count or a deadline
To prevent myself from remaining in the research warren I find it useful to set a weekly and daily word count. If I have to write actual words, the amount of time I can spend researching 18th century cooking is limited, albeit glorious. I also determine the cut-off date for my main research, marking the point I must plunge into the novel.
- Remember the purpose of research
As Emma Darwin points out in her excellent Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, it's important to remind yourself of the point of research, which is, she says, to ‘fill the larder of your imagination with food and fuel for your storytelling mind.’ The fact that the larder is full doesn’t mean you have to use everything in it. In fact, you won’t use most of it at all.
Tracy Chevalier says 'Think of it this way: the research is not really for your readers, it's for yourself, so that you understand the time and place and people you're writing about. All the reader really needs is to feel confident that you know what you're talking about; they don't need the specifics. So by all means do research and take notes and talk to experts and look at paintings and visit places. Absorb it all. Then set it aside and write the story.’
I think that’s key. It’s very easy to let research become procrastination – to convince yourself that you can’t possibly write your novel unless you know what kind of potato your main character would have been peeling in Part 1, or what kind of horse they were riding and whether they were in fact riding it side-saddle. I know someone whose work on a particular novel stalled entirely due to not being able to work out the laws of property inheritance in 1910. As far as I know, she's still stuck in 1910.
It's tempting, having spent months researching some particular subject, to find a way of shoehorning it into your novel. Don't. It’s obvious when writers do that and it takes the reader out of the story.
Val McDermid has a rather lovely tip, which is to ‘Only use historical detail when you would use that same detail in a contemporary novel.’ If you wouldn't describe the car someone is driving in a modern novel, why are you expending three paragraphs on the coach and horses in your Victorian mystery?
Trust the imagination of your reader. You don’t have to research for two days what kind of writing bureau your character uses, then spend a page describing it, in order for the reader to see it.
Ultimately, it's the story that they care about. It's for the characters and their journeys, rather than your descriptions of the cornicing, that they're reading the novel. So do the best you can with your research. Then leave it behind and write the darn book.
Anna Mazzola is a writer of historical crime fiction. Her first novel, The Unseeing, was published in 2016. Her second, The Story Keeper, will be out in July.