Research: How much is enough? And how much do you use? by Chris Longmuir
Research, how much is enough? And how much do you use? You would be as well asking how long is a piece of string, with the answer being as long as you need it to be.
There are, of course, different types of research and researchers who do it. There is the academic who consults primary and secondary sources before writing a thesis which is beyond the ability of a mere mortal writer of crime fiction to understand. At the other end of the scale is the writer who puts pen to paper and flies by the seat of his or her pants. But, in the main, a writer has to do some research, although that may be dependent on how much knowledge the writer already has.
Coming back to different kinds of research, there is the overall background research required before putting pen to paper. For example, in my historical novels, I need to know what was going on in the world at that time, what aspects of that were important for my characters, and what it was like to live then. I need an understanding of customs, their life styles, what people ate, what they wore, and a great deal more. Of course, only a fraction of what I research is included in the novel, but I do need to know all these things.
Research is easier now because of the internet, but at this stage, I am still consulting books and libraries and making visits to places of interest. One of my most valuable resources for the book I am currently working on is an unpublished thesis which I found online. I must remember to thank the author in my acknowledgments.
“A Salt Splashed Cradle drips with historical accuracy, and even the scenes aboard a whaling ship seem to have been recounted directly from an 1800s whaler, almost as if Chris Longmuir boarded those ships and chopped them free from the ice herself”.
Likewise, I have a mill scene in The Death Game (historical crime) which came from my own memory bank of personal experiences from three years working in a spinning mill.
So, is that enough research to complete the novel? I’m afraid not. It is enough to get the writing started and the story flowing, but there are the little details that need to be researched while the story develops. For example, the book I am currently working on is set in 1917, right in the middle of the First World War. It is set in a munitions factory that is unlike any other of its kind. Most munitions factories were in established steel or iron works. In other words, factory buildings. This munitions factory was nine miles long and four miles wide, and a town was built to service it. The background research has been done, and I visited the town which still exists, although the factory is long gone.
The two ongoing research issues I have addressed this week, in connection with this novel, involved firearms and cars. I do not use firearms in any of my contemporary novels, but my saboteur in this new novel required a gun. So a full day’s research into First World War weapons wound up as:
“He put his hand in his pocket, feeling the bulk of the Bulldog revolver nestling inside. His hand tightened on the wooden grip as he waited for the explosion that would create the diversion he needed.”
Likewise, I needed to know what type of car might be used by the military during this period. After a bit of investigation I found an image of an open-topped staff car which I thought would do nicely, but then I had to find out how to drive it because it wouldn’t do if my description sounded like a modern car. Again, I spent most of the day reading online articles and viewing videos detailing the mechanics of these cars and how to drive them. The internet is a wondrous thing. The result was the following:
The driver leaned into the car. ‘Make yourselves comfortable.’ She grabbed the steering wheel and pushed a lever behind it into the up position, then turned a switch on the square box at the end of the steering column. She grinned at them. ‘Get ready.’
She walked to the front of the car, grabbed the edge of the mudguard with her right hand and the crank with her left, and exerting all her strength she turned the handle. The engine shuddered into life. Releasing the handle, she jumped into the car, turned the switch on the square box in the opposite direction, pushed the lever behind the wheel into the down position, manipulated another lever at the other side of the wheel, and then steered the car along the road.
That was boiled down from three pages of notes and a full day’s research, and because the book is still in its first draft, it will probably be polished further, reduced, or even deleted. The thing I wanted to highlight was the amount of research that goes into a few sentences.
A lot of the research I’ve done will be useful for further books, but there will still be areas that need to be explored. Take a crossbow, for example. How does it feel to hold one? How do you insert/load the bolt? How much strength does it take to fire it? Although one of my clients, during my previous life as a social worker, insisted on demonstrating how he shot rabbits with one, I don’t know the answers to the above questions because, so far, none of my characters have used a crossbow. But if I do have to issue a crossbow to a character in a future novel, I know exactly where to go to find the answers.
The first question I asked at the beginning is unanswerable, only you can decide when you have done enough background research to start writing. The second question is easier. If you put too much of that research into your novel you will bore your reader, therefore, only a fraction of what you discover should be used, and it is up to you to decide how much to put in and how much to leave out. But it is the knowledge you now possess about the background of your novel that will lend authority to your writing.