How important is research?
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
and hes 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 Hitlers
biography, you will find that he never was called Schicklgruber
- that it was his grandmothers
name, but his father had changed the familys surname to Hitler
thirteen years before Adolf was born. You will find that he came
from a comfortable background, and was born in spring.
that wouldnt 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. Youre 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 isnt, 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. Its 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
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 doesnt
want a history lesson. Hes 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
wouldnt 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?
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 hes doing he would have to have
passed several written tests, then you know the answer. It is too
glaring an inaccuracy. But dont panic youve possibly
lost some time, but you havent 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 didnt 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 hed
done wrong for laughing, because in his scene-setting, hed
written the coyotes were circling lazily in the sky.
If you dont
know for certain, then find out. And how do you find out?
Try Research for Writers by Ann Hoffman see
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.