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Research: How much is too much?

If Google looked at my browsing history, (which I didn’t get round to clearing before the recent deadline so God knows what they’re going to do with it) they would see:

  • current stalking laws
  • Danish traditions
  • the history of Bristol Zoo
  • videos of how to make a prosthetic head
  • pictures of burnt out dodgem rides on Weston Super Mare pier
  • what to do when an air line loses your luggage
  • how to embalm someone

I’m not sure there’s anything there to get me arrested or certified. It’s all novel research and that’s just a snippet.

I’ve just read an interview with author Jenny Colgan in the April issue of Writer’s Forum magazine about the value of research. She’s quite anti it and says

“I think a lot of people who want to write get horribly bogged down in research and getting the details right. It’s a total waste of time. Get the characters right; try and feel them as living, breathing humans who have something to say, and worry about the details later. “

I balked at this at first because research to me is part of creating that layered, fictional world, that has to be credible. If I’m reading something and some detail is obviously inaccurate or glaringly anachronistic, I find the whole carefully constructed world begins to crack a little. Obviously with historical fiction you can’t get away with fudging details, but I’m thinking more generally.

But now I think maybe Jenny Colgan has a point. I don’t think she’s suggesting not doing any research at all but rather it’s more important to get the character right than the details. If the characters are two dimensional, no amount of painstaking research is going to save them, but the balance is a fine one I think. Like a method actor, I want to know as much as I can about my character’s profession but it doesn’t determine how they will react in any given situation.

If you’re a writer, how much research do you do? Do you do it first or as and when you need to find something out? Do you agree with Jenny Colgan that it’s easy to get too bogged down in research?

If you’re a reader, have you ever noticed something glaringly wrong about a profession, place or situation?

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. metropolitanmum #

    I am a research person, too. I need to get the facts right and feel secure about what I am about to write. Let’s say your character works at an airline. People who usually work at airlines usually speak in a certain jargon. (as do writers, bankers, teacher…) As a writer, I would want to feel at ease using those jargons. I hate when writers get the facts wrong, no matter how the well the characters are developed.
    I also don’t like when writers generalise and try to project what has worked for them on you. There is no such thing as the one way to write a novel. There are a million different ways. Choose what works for you. And write! 🙂

    March 27, 2012
  2. That’s true, yes. I always worry that someone who actually does work in the industry I have chosen for my main character’s profession will see straight through it. A certain level of understanding of what they do, how they speak, is very important. But maybe it’s possible to get too obsessed with this – I think I have been prone to that. Using research as a procrastination tool perhaps.

    March 27, 2012
  3. Nina de la Mer #

    Very interesting post – I’m with you on this Alison: Research was massively important to my first novel – being set on a British Army base it was essential to get my facts straight as the military are very sensitive about fictional recreations of their closed world. But also the research informed the emotional development of my characters, so I disagree with Jenny Colgan – it was the useful titbits of minor detail that came from the research that brought my characters to life (imho) and informed their emotional journey. I am starting on novel 2 very soon and plan to use research as tool in writing it again. (My browing history so far for it says: pigeon’s anatomy; lap dancer’s pay rates & big brother series one transmission dates).

    March 27, 2012
  4. Laughing at your bizarre browsing history – that’s brilliant. I would love to see a whole compilation of these and guess the novel from them! I’ll have to wait and see from your novel how a lap dancer connects to a pigeon’s anatomy!

    Yes, I agree – pinning down a character’s emotional journey can come precisely from a little piece of research. You hear of actors saying once they got a little detail right about a character – a walk, the right shoes, whatever, they were able to nail the character.

    March 27, 2012
    • Nina de la Mer #

      Agreed – very interesting about comparison to actors! Of course for fantasy or sci fi books, imagination must be key, but for plain old lit or commercial fiction, I think research is crucial!

      March 27, 2012

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