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 One of my most valuable resources for the book I am currently working on is an unpublished thesis which I found online.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.

An example of this type of research can be found in my historical saga, A Salt Splashed Cradle. Before writing this book I had to do a lot of research into fishing communities, fishing boats, and whaling ships. Now, the only boats or ships I have ever been on were ferries and cruise liners. I have no experience with small fishing boats, baiting fishing nets, or sailing on a whaling ship. Nor have I ever been to the Arctic. And yet a reviewer of this book said:
“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”.

Then there is the research based on a writer’s own experience. This is similar to the ‘write what you know’ type of advice handed out to budding writers. In this type of research, we are mining our own memories. For example, the snake scene in Dead Wood (a contemporary crime novel) came from personal experience. I have been in that room where three of the walls were lined with glass snake tanks containing three massive pythons. I have watched them being handled and fed (I won’t go into details) and have experienced having to hide my fear of these reptiles. So, It wasn’t too difficult to write the scene where Kara sleeps in this room and one of the snakes escapes from its tank.

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.

Chris Longmuir

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Bill Kirton said…
All so familiar, Chris, and you convey so well the way a search for a couple of tiny details turns into an absorbing day's reading and searching (as well as going off into unnecessary but fascinating diversions). You're right, the internet always seems to have the answers in the end. The one area I find most frustrating, though, is that of language - not only in dialogue but also in whether particular expressions existed at the relevant date. Catherine mentioned this in her last post and I've often agonised over whether a character would use a turn of phrase which is exactly what's needed in the circumstances but which might not have been in use at the time. In the end, I have to rely on good old fashioned libraries and their huge dictionaries with examples of first usages etc.
Dennis Hamley said…
Yes, Chris, that rang so many bells. I liked the comment on A Salt Splashed Cradle. It's exactly how basic finding out about things most other people seem to know already can have startling results. Years ago, when I was nagging the Point Crime editor, Julia Moffatt, about letting me do my Joslin medieval mysteries, she said she'd allow me just one if I would consent to write her a murder mystery with a horse-racing background, which so far the series lacked. Worried because I knew ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about horse-racing, I bought The Racegoer's Encyclopaedia and everything about racing in the book comes from that. When I finished the story I gave to book to Oxfam. I was really chuffed when a reviewer said 'the novel benefits from the author's profound knowledge of the sport.'
Fran B said…
Just finished first draft of my fourth novel which is set on the Isle of Mull (Hebrides) in the 1920s. Protagonist is the twelve year old daughter of a lighthouse keeper and the family live in the keepers' cottages right down at the south tip of Mull (on tidal islet called Erraid which features in Robert Louis Stevenson's novel 'Kidnapped') I spent about 2 years just researching in lots of ways: the internet, yes, but also visits to 3 museums and a castle; old books; old diaries; old photographs; meeting up with elderly people who had been 'lighthouse' kids; contacting the daughter of the last lighthouse keeper on Erraid who is in her nineties and now lives in British Columbia; etc; etc. It was fascinating. I met so many lovely helpful people too. I could be at it still but had to rein in the research bug and get on with writing the book. Only used a soupcon of all that research material but having done it made me feel I was in that era, in that place as I wrote and hopefully will have made my writing authentic.
Lydia Bennet said…
The research is part of the fun, and it's never wasted - even if you have to delete your lovely piece Chris, it somehow remains in a kind of powerful homeopathic diluted form and informs the whole book. I look forward to reading your next historical crime, keep us informed!
glitter noir said…
Though several of us have had our go at the same subject, you've added a wonderful spin of your own. And your statement sums it all up to perfection, I think:

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.
Chris Longmuir said…
Thanks for the comments. I've been away at a writers' conference and have only just returned, so I hadn't seen them before now.

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