WEAR YOUR RESEARCH LIGHTLY
by Andy Maslen
Research. It’s the big bugbear for a lot of novelists. You set a book in Norway and then disappear down the rabbit hole of the Internet, researching the geography history, climate, major exports, language and culture of Norway. Every time one of your characters goes out for a meal or a drink you have to find just the right bar or restaurant. But which street is it on? What’s the menu? And the decor. Bang! Another two hours have elapsed and you’ve written precisely no words.
When you finally lay your research aside and begin writing the second problem presents itself. Having discovered all that glorious information about Norway you’ll be damned if you’ll waste it. Your character can’t just appear in the restaurant. They have to take the exact route they would in real life, and pause to admire every historic landmark along the way.
I had to give up on a book by a very well known write of literary fiction for just this reason. I am paraphrasing, but the paragraph that led to my giving up ran something like this:
“Marie turned left along Rue de Fleurs, the narrow cobbled street built during the period when Baron Hausmann was redesigning the street plan of Paris. He was charged by the government of the day with preventing revolutionaries from conducting running battles with the police, or gendarmes, as they were known, and tearing up cobbles to use as weapons. She paused at number 11, a narrow, four-storey house that, a plaque mounted on the left of the front door announced, was the residence between 1867 and 1871 of Rene Fluocon, the impressionist painter best known for the style he invented called ‘glassisme’, which involved the careful application of up to nine layers of paint to give a translucent effect…”
Yes, do your research. And do it thoroughly. You can give your reader a sense of place that helps them imagine that it is they who are strolling along a street, or eating in a restaurant, along with your protagonist. But use what you have learned sparingly. The smell of grilling meat and the red plaster walls of the houses might be all you need.
The same goes for research into what we might call hardware. Cars, guns, computers, cameras, sewing machines, battleships: they are all fascinating to enthusiasts and you can fill a whole book with details about them. In fact many authors – of reference books – do just that. But if you are telling a story, remember that people are interested in characters, motivations, actions and consequences far more than in the precise metallurgical composition of a shell casing or the specification of a character’s laptop.
Sometimes, you can use dialogue to explain to the reader something technical, which makes it less likely that you have to intrude yourself into the action to make things clear. Let’s take the example of a character who is using a particular kind of rifle (I write thrillers, so this is a natural area for me). Here are two ways to describe a particular weapon and its capabilities.
Sam was using a Barrett Light Fifty. Also known as the M82, the sniper rifle was chambered for .50 calibre rounds and had been originally designed for use against vehicles and fortified positions rather than enemy combatants.
Sam dragged out his Barrett Light Fifty.
“What d’ya bring an M82 for?” Jon said. “We’re going after a man, not a armoured car.”
“Figured a .50 calibre round would say we mean business.”
As well as being shorter, the second version sounds more like a story and less like a gunnery instructor.
The last thing to say about research is to ask a question. Is it really necessary? This is fiction. If you want there to be a paint factory in downtown Oslo, put one there. Yes, you may get exasperated – and exasperating – emails from people pointing out that there is no such building, but it doesn’t matter. They are in the minority.
Do as much research as you need to feel comfortable but then get on and tell your story. That’s what your readers are looking for.
Thank you so much, Andy, for sharing your writing advice on Books That Hook!
About Andy Maslen
Andy Maslen is the author of the Gabriel Wolfe and Stella Cole thriller
series. He was born in Nottingham, in the UK, home of legendary bowman
Robin Hood. Andy once won a medal for archery, although he has never
been locked up by the sheriff.
He has worked in a record shop, as a barman, as a door-to-door DIY
products salesman and a cook in an Italian restaurant. He eventually
landed a job in marketing, writing mailshots to sell business management
reports. He spent 10 years in the corporate world before launching a
business writing agency, Sunfish, where he writes for clients including
The Economist, Christie’s and World Vision.
Andy has also published five works of non-fiction, on copywriting and
freelancing, with Marshall Cavendish and Kogan Page.
He lives in Wiltshire, with his wife, two sons and a whippet named
Andy’s most recent book, FIRST CASUALTY, was published in October 2016 by Tyton Press. It has a five-star rating on Amazon!