The Research Trap


Over the weekend, Ash introduced me to an interesting blog post from her one-time lecture and novelist David Rain, busting the “Seven Myths of Writing. I don’t usually go in for writing advice much, partly because the craft is such a personal thing. Stephen King’s “On Writing” is a book I really enjoyed, but it was “how Stephen King writes” rather than “how you should write”.

David’s approach, however, was interesting. It wasn’t advice per se, but rather challenging some common pre-conceptions. Myth number two in particular leapt out at me, “The Myth of Perfect Preparation“:

…the truth about research and planning, for fiction at least, is this: Do the minimum. Do just enough to get going, and no more… Research is a bottomless pit. If you do it without knowing where you’re going or what you need…it’ll be a long time before you write Chapter One…

I actually completely agree. Most of my writing is within the science-fiction and horror genres — clinging to the darker edges where the two genres intersect — so it might seem like I ought to be doing reams of research. But actually, I do surprisingly little.

At university I read Law, which was a very research-heavy experience. In particular, I wrote my final year 10,000 word dissertation on the contemporary relevance of England’s historic law of treason (Yeah…), which meant picking through leather-bound tomes and Norman French statues from the fourteenth century. I think that cured me of any compulsion to do the same with my fiction.

I love Wikipedia. At university we were warned off using it, but actually I think that is flawed advice. Using Wikipedia is fine, just keep in mind that Wikipedia can and does lie. Information found there should be confirmed elsewhere, but as a starting point, it’s unrivalled.

Case in point: at the end of last week I needed a piece of information, in order to start a new story that had been bugging me. Specifically, I needed to know how long the Antarctic polar night lasts. A fairly specific detail, but one which a few judicious Google searches revealed. (Incidentally, it usually lasts from about April through August, depending on where abouts in the Antarctic circle you are).

I research as I go, essentially, plucking facts from cyberspace as I need them. As far as the initial ideas go, I tend to take them from the flotsam and jetsam which floats my way on the daily river of life. A turn of phrase in conversation, or a film or story. An odd news story I happen upon via Twitter or Facebook. Or just something I see in the street. If I had to research every aspect of life in the Antarctic, read every account I could lay my hands on, before putting words on the page, then I would quite simply never start.

See, holing yourself up in a library and reading obscure books is great (really it is; I do indulge from time to time, and have a very well-used library card), but it’s no substitute for experience. Everyday life is the best research, and as a writer I like to hunt down new experiences which will provide fertile new ground for stories.

The traditional research, print and digital, is just to plug the gaps as they appear.

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