Writing Advice
- Introduction
- A room of one's own?
- Where do you get your ideas?
- Where do I begin?
- What books do I need?
- How important is research?
- Should I join a writers' circle?
- Literary terms
- Typing it up
- Sending it off
- Penbenders
- Creating characters
- Constructing the story
- Short Fiction


How important is research?

There is a clever short story set in the late nineteenth century about a young Austrian woman going through a difficult pregnancy while her husband is away from home, and you feel for her desperately as she copes with the situation on her own, in harsh conditions, with just a country doctor to attend her - and he’s not even arrived, delayed by the inclement weather. By the time she is giving painful birth, you are praying that the baby will be all right. And it does have a happy ending, with the doctor arriving just in time, and assuring Mrs Schicklgruber that she has a fine, healthy, baby boy. She is going to name him Adolf.*

If you look up Adolf Hitler’s biography, you will find that he never was called Schicklgruber -  that it was his grandmother’s name, but his father had changed the family’s surname to Hitler thirteen years before Adolf was born. You will find that he came from a comfortable background, and was born in spring.

But that wouldn’t have worked on your heart-strings, would it? So it is wise never to let research get in the way of a good story. Readers are very forgiving, as long as they are being entertained, or given some thought-provoking diversion. You’re writing fiction, remember, and playing fast and loose with history is an honourable fiction tradition, providing the point you are getting across is more important than the facts.

But if it isn’t, then the reader will find inaccuracies irritating, and if there are too many of them a publisher might turn down what could have been an acceptable novel. It’s as well to deviate from reality only when you have a sound reason for doing so.

In my line of country, for instance – if a scene would be dynamic and dramatic only if I side-step the procedure that the police would be duty-bound to take, then the police procedure loses. I will do my best to produce a situation in which a departure from procedure was (at least fictionally) unavoidable, or I will try explain the lapse away, but if all else fails, I will just write the scene, and to hell with police procedure. It very rarely happens; the processes of the law have their own drama, and it is usually quite easy to maintain the tension while having the police behave more or less as the police would in that situation.

But in a less obvious way, no crime novelist ever really sticks to police procedure, because there would be far too many characters for the reader to be able to keep track of them all; there would be far too much emphasis on the minutiae of a police investigation, and that would detract from the story. The best you can do is suggest the large numbers of officers working on the investigation, the huge amount of paperwork generated, the hundreds of witnesses interviewed.

And all novelists have to perform this balancing act where research is required. Historical novelists might know their period inside out, but the reader doesn’t want a history lesson. He’s delighted if he picks up some knowledge of the period along the way, but only as much as he needs to follow the story. The story is king.

Some novelists love doing research, some hate it. I fall into the second category, but nonetheless I have more up-to-date books on police procedure, interviewing techniques, statement-taking, criminal law, forensic science and pathology than the most ambitious of police officers, because I want to keep inaccuracies to a minimum. Those who enjoy research have more dangers lurking than simply the possibility of error; they might find that they enjoy it so much they never get round to writing the story. Or they might be unable to resist a digression from the story while they instruct the reader in their subject. Herman Melville got away with it in Moby Dick, but I suspect most readers skip that bit, and he wouldn’t get away with it today.

Assuming that you are not a historical novelist per se, but are writing a novel whose background is one with which you are not personally familiar, I find that the best way to deal with the research aspect is to sketch out the story the way you want it, and then ask yourself what you need to know in order tell the story convincingly, and what the reader needs to know in order to follow it. Research that, and that only. If what you find out is at odds with the story, you must then ask yourself which is more important? Does the story fall apart if you apply what you have learned to it, or can you alter it so that it works with the reality? If not, is the departure from reality so mind-boggling that no one could swallow it, or is it something that you can hope the reader will overlook?

Remember – if you go the second way, it has to be a small deviation from reality, unless you are making a bravura statement like the writer of the Hitler story. If your story is about an airline pilot who cannot read or write, and you discover during your research that in order to do the job he’s doing he would have to have passed several written tests, then you know the answer. It is too glaring an inaccuracy. But don’t panic – you’ve possibly lost some time, but you haven’t lost your story. Your story is of someone successfully hiding a disability from the rest of the world – you can make that disability fit the research, or you can research a different line of business for your illiterate hero. The story survives.

More usually, the problems that arise with research are minor - a character reading a newspaper that didn’t come into being until twenty years after the time in which the novel is set, or using the M8 to get from London to Bristol, that sort of thing. The British writer of westerns, J T Edson, said that when he wrote his first novel, his editor could hardly explain to him what he’d done wrong for laughing, because in his scene-setting, he’d written ‘the coyotes were circling lazily in the sky’.

If you don’t know for certain, then find out. And how do you find out? Try Research for Writers by Ann Hoffman – see ‘What books do I need?’ for details.

*This story is not 'Genesis and Catastrophe' by Roald Dahl, though it clearly has a great deal in common with it. I have never read it; I saw a dramatisation of it decades ago and I have never known what it was called or who wrote it. I might have got some of the detail wrong, and I could have confused it to some extent with the Dahl story, but a correspondent assures me that the story as I have outlined it does exist. If anyone out there knows anything about it that might help me track down its title and author, I (and my correspondent) would be very grateful.


Jill McGown
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