I know, I know. Research isn’t the sexiest part of writing. It isn’t sitting in a Paris café with a cigarillo hanging out of your mouth, and it isn’t battering away at a Sholes and Glidden typewriter in a converted shed. However, unless you are writing the flashiest of flash fiction, or scribbling on a subject with which you are entirely conversant, most narratives will require a level of research.
The [copious] gaps in my knowledge should have been highlighted in the pre-planning stage of my writing process. Some pieces, like THE PREDATOR, will require less research – we’ve all been in a bar before. Others, like WATAN, will require substantially more. I certainly haven’t flown a kite on the rooftops of 1960s Lahore before, and to write as if I had without research would result in a story lacking in authenticity. Research adds weight to a piece when used appropriately. It gives a writer confidence that they know their subject, something that will be immediately apparent to a reader.
I research my work in four main ways:
- Journal articles
Fantastic if you have access to a university library or similar. These have the benefit of being targeted; if you want to write about a subject, odds are that someone will have written a journal article on it. This was certainly the case for WATAN. I was able to research Pakistani immigration into Scotland with ease and got access to the statistics I needed quickly. There is a certain skill in searching for suitable journals, not too dissimilar to hash tagging effectively.
The most obvious and best resource available to writers. Charles William Eliot said, ‘Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.’ Unless reading for pleasure, remember that your research book is there to serve your writing. Use indexes, use contents pages. It’s not cheating to dip in and out of a book for research purposes. At present I am reading Robert Graves’ ‘The Greek Myths’ for a story. Although immersive, it is perhaps not practical to read and annotate all 784 pages for the purposes of a 2,000-word short story. Read well and read with a purpose; the better your source material, the better your writing will be.
‘Write what you know’ is perhaps too cliched a piece of writing advice, but its sentiment has solid foundations. If possible, visit the place you are writing about. I am writing a story set in a Scottish port called Mallaig at present and have booked a weekend away with my wife. This will hopefully allow me a sense of mise en scene, thereby doing Mallaig justice. I know from experience that the trip will also provide me with those anecdotal nuggets that are gold dust in fiction – the smells, tastes, and impressions that are impossible to garner from the comfort of your writing desk.
If you haven’t experienced what you are writing about, then the next best thing is speaking to someone who has. Odds are that if they consider the anecdote worth telling and you find it worth listening to, then it will translate well into a story. I had the good fortune to attend a writing group with a gentleman who had grown up in Lahore and who was able to add to the authenticity of WATAN. Going the extra mile and speaking to someone with experience in your subject area will undoubtedly show through in your final piece.
To finish, I’ll discuss one thing I try never to do when researching. If I am writing a ghost story, I won’t read Susan Hill whilst I’m writing it. If I am penning a piece of crime flash fiction, I’ll avoid Raymond Chandler for the duration of the process. Why? Because their styles will inevitably bleed into my writing, resulting in a depressing parody of an author I admire. Read other genres? Yes. Read research? Definitely. But I steer away from polluting my train of thought with other authors’ work. I see research much as a surgeon would their scalpels and clamps – keep them sterilized to avoid cross-contamination between styles.
As always folks, I would be delighted to hear about your creative processes.
Previous posts on my process are below.
Igloos in the Tundra: Idea Formation
A Skeleton to Flesh Out: Pre-planning