Research: Caution

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The modern detective story flips the normal narrative sequence on its head. If we go by standard procedure; the corpse and crime is introduced first and followed by the investigator piecing together how/when/why the crime happened. Storytelling that is arse-backwards. No wonder detective fiction is still one of the most compelling genres.

When carrying out research for your novel (or fiction of any length) you may have to assume the mantle of detective. Not that there will be dead bodies involved (heaven forbid!) but it helps to follow procedure:

1) Don’t get carried away

This applies equally to rookie and veterans. For example you may have a great idea for an historical murder-mystery set in 15th Century Florence. Research duly begins into the political and social conditions of the era. Perhaps one evening as you research possible murder weapons, you come across a book about daggers. There are pages of illustrations about 15th century stilettos – aren’t they beautiful and lethal?!  Lets just forget about the protagonist being a courtesan, now she’s the daughter of a murdered bladesmith! Why? Because stilettos are so lovely…..!

2. Don’t get lost

This applies more to research on the Internet. You start your research and have clicked on so many links that you have ended up at a dead Geocities type of website. How did you get there? You can’t go back because your browser does not support cookies. Hence you trudge back to Google, enter your keyword/s and begin again. Research one thing at a time and resist the urge to open up multiple tabs- it may work for social networking but not professional working.

3. Don’t panic!

In the beginning you rejoice – there are whole mountain ranges’ worth of knowledge pertaining to your WIP! Alas the initial euphoria turns to stress- what do I do with all this information? How do I know which ones to select? Maybe this was a stupid idea after all…

Lets steal an idea from the self-help gurus: relax, its always much easier to know what you do not want than what you do want. Start scaling the mountain range at the bottom.

4. Don’t gloss over

There is the amusing bit in Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’, when Briony Tallis is corrected by World War II veterans for the errors in her manuscript; bombs do not weigh a thousand tons and ‘No British soldier would say ‘On the double’…The correct term is ‘At the double’.

Facts are facts but what maybe minor to you is major to others. Please do not do yourself a disservice. Especially when it comes to cultures, terminology and languages. One or two errors is pardonable but a whole slew of them simply screams, “SLOPPY! SLOPPY! SLOPPY!”

5) Don’t forget to consult

Remember that writing need not be a solitary activity. Consult your friends. Every major television program such as ‘House’ and ‘CSI’ has a team of consultants in specialist areas. Where is your team? You may not have friends who are doctors, lawyers or detectives but you never know who possesses some obscure or arcane knowledge in the form of old books, magazines, pictures, albums etc…Hobbyists provide fascinating and useful information too.

The best to way to approach people is to say, “I’m doing research for a novel…”. They normally open up like clams filter-feeding during a warm high tide. Don’t forget to acknowledge them later. (The people, not the clams….)

Finally when you have solved the mystery of doing research:

6) Don’t forget about your WIP

6 thoughts on “Research: Caution

  1. Very excellent advice. Too often I’ve started research only to wind up happily trolling up completely unnecessary information I became interested in while looking up something that was. 🙂

  2. I just read a YA book called Guardian of the Dead. The author is a native New Zealander, and wanted to write a book about Maori culture – which she knew nothing about. She sent her manuscript to a couple of experts for fact-checking and so on and so forth, just to make sure she had it right.

  3. This is really helpful. I’m rubbish at research and often gloss over, thinking “I’ll check this later and keep writing now.” Problem is, I end up with hundreds of little facts to check later and struggle to make myself sit down and do it.

    I like your ideas on how to make research more focused and less of a time-suck.

  4. I like the researching for my writing more than the actual writing, is that bad? This post is actually helpful to me…I get so sidetracked while researching, that I spend probably 90% of time not writing…lol

  5. Well said! I especially like #s 2 and 3 don’t get lost and don’t panic. As a Librarian, I know very well how easy it can be to get lost in te sea of information on the web. Staying focused can be a great challenge, which can then indeed set in to panic.

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