Monday, 11 July 2011

Adding verisimilitude...

Research for a fiction project is either a love-it/hate-it thing. Me? I love it. Which is why I became a librarian. But it has its pitfalls. Sometimes, I will spend two days trying to track down a certain piece of information and it can only provide a sentence in the book. All that time for one sentence. No wonder it is such a temptation for beginners especially, to show how much they know about their subject. It is also one of the biggest turn offs a writer can offer a reader. After all, who wants to be force-fed information which has only a background influence on the plot? The writer who does this is, in effect, not caring about the reader at all, only about demonstrating how clever he or she is.

Take my current book. Perfect example. My protagonist has a couple of dogs who have managed to bring a traumatised child from her dark inner world to the light. The repercussions of this will flow on in the story to where someone with an autistic child asks my heroine for help. Can her dogs make a difference? The daughter of a close friend has helped me get some of the information I needed from peer-reviewed scientific papers about the effect dogs in particular can have on the wellbeing and socialisation of autistic children. It took a couple of hours of searching for information, a day or so to work out which papers would be most useful and almost two weeks for them to arrive on my doormat. The information I have gleaned will occupy, at most, three sentences and possibly a bit of conversation in one or two scenes. But I needed to spend that time, take that trouble, to make sure that what I write is accurate.

The same goes for my alternate history crime stories featuring Tudor apothecary, Luke Ballard. As far as I can manage, I have retained true incidents, real people and the tenor of Tudor life. It required weeks of research – and this for someone who was fairly convinced before she started that she knew a great deal about the period in question. Not slipping into the trap of lecturing to the reader is sometimes quite hard, especially when I’ve learned something that piques my interest. And, a couple of times, I have unwittingly fallen into that trap. On one occasion, I had just read David Starkey’s assertion that Catherine of Aragon was responsible for the Reformation because she wouldn’t give Henry a divorce so that he could try for the son he so desperately needed to give the dynasty some security. After a whole paragraph of telling the reader this, I realised I had to scrap it. The reader still knows, but it is one character who says that it was “all the old Queen’s fault. She should have been an obedient wife and gone into a nunnery. Then this wouldn’t have happened.” Two sentences replaced a sermonising paragraph and the book is all the better for it.

I’ve learned the hard way that research is like salt on chips. Too much and they are uneatable.


  1. Absolutely.

    At the last talk I gave for Torc of Moonlight members of the audience came up afterwards, wide-eyed no less, to say they couldn't believe how much research went into a supernatural thriller. You do sometimes wonder if you're banging your head against a wall.

  2. Your comment about spending hours or even days researching something which might occupy only a few words on the page struck a strong chord with me! I'm currently writing a Victorian detective novel and although you can do a lot of research before you start there are always things that crop up as you go along. I eventually found, though, that regularly stopping to find things out was interrupting the creative flow and affecting the quality of the writing, so I adopted a new strategy of just leaving gaps and ploughing on wherever possible, to come back to it later.

    (PS My Blogger blog isn't my real one but was created because it seemed to be the only way to leave comments on Blogger blogs! My real blog is