There’s one vital part of novel-writing which potentially doesn’t involve any actual writing: research.
I say “potentially” because the need for research, the type of research and the amount of research depends very much on the subject of your novel.
So, for a novel which is based in a familiar location (your home city or town), using characters who are familiar to you, very little research may be required. Or perhaps you’re writing about an entirely fictional world – one with twin suns, populated by steam-powered robots. In such a novel, research may be largely irrelevant, since the world is entirely of your own invention.
For the rest of us, research is vitally important.
The danger of pressing ahead without research is that you’ll be creating characters and plot based on assumptions and third-hand information. Any assumptions will be – largely – based on media you’ve consumed: television, films and books. Fictional portrayals are not to be trusted: you might research thoroughly, others might not.
Any third-hand information is also not to be trusted – let’s face it, in court of law, it’s called hearsay, and it’s not permissible as evidence.
There’s only one solution: go to the source.
Research is time-consuming, challenging and often extremely inconvenient to your partly constructed plot and characters (since these will already be based on assumptions and third-hand information). But, to an open mind, research can also be enormously rewarding – enriching your work beyond measure.
Let me give you some examples from my own work.
In my first novel, The Well, one of the things I needed to research was exactly how police search for a missing person. My only experience of this was from television shows, so I made the normal assumptions when planning my characters and sketching out the plot.
Once writing was underway, I needed to nail both plot and characters – to underpin them with facts. I arranged to meet a policeman.
(Most people are more than happy to help with your research. People enjoy talking about their own jobs and are happy to contribute to your work.)
We chatted about police procedure and I gathered the facts needed for my storyline. During the conversation, several bombshells were dropped. Now, once you’re in possession of this new information, it seems obvious – how could you not have seen that? Yet before this, you could never have guessed it.
Bombshell one related to how open the police are with the parents of a missing child. My personal experience of police is that they are helpful and open – but when a child goes missing, said my interviewee, “everyone is a suspect” and we feed out information in a way to benefit the investigation. Obvious – when you know it.
Bombshell two was how the families of abducted children react. In many cases, rather than pulling together, the additional trauma can tear them apart. In the absence of someone to blame, couples can turn on each other – and old, hidden grievances can surface. Again, obvious – when you know it.
I’m currently researching for my second novel. Speaking to a pathologist was rewarding and gruesome in a coldly clinical kind of way – and enormously enlightening. There’s a world of difference between the television portrayal of pathology and what happens in the reality.
I also needed to speak to someone who understood the personal, professional and family life of a vicar. I could have gone to a vicar, but I suspected I’d get a less filtered view from a close family member – in this case I spoke to the widow of a vicar.
We discussed the proposed character – a minor player who makes a few key contributions to the plot and character motivations who will, however, be important in a later book.
Again, some of my assumptions were simply wrong. One of these was that my vicar, who is at the point of retirement, would settle into a house nearby and attend his own church, sometimes giving ‘guest sermons’. Well, that would be nice. Except, in the UK Church of England, that rarely happens. Vicars are encouraged to retire to a different parish – after all, the vicar will have been one of the spiritual leaders of his/her own parish for many years; he will have loyal followers, views, opinions and so forth. A new vicar may work differently and it doesn’t help to have the previous helmsman hanging around. Obvious – when you know it.
I’d also planned a sweet scene where the old vicar hands over the keys to the church to the new one. Again, this rarely happens. Indeed, there’s usually a gap between the period of each tenure.
These two pieces of information – and others provided at the same time – have created the need for quite a bit of replotting and led to some really quite rewarding character enrichment.
Of course, I could ignore them. Just because something seldom happens doesn’t mean that it never happens, or couldn’t happen. However, that would mean that my work would be more predictable – because often our assumptions are similar.
I’m not exactly writing within a genre where everything has to match real life. But for the part of the work grounded in reality, it pays to keep it as close to that reality as possible.
And I have to confess that I enjoy both the research and the ways in which it affects my stories. I like meeting new people, exchanging ideas, building new characters and developing unforeseen story twists.
Without this, your entire book is something that you could guess at – and your readers can guess at too. With it, your characters and plot take on a new, more grounded and interesting life. Plus, the more believable the everyday stuff is, the more believable the supernatural stuff becomes too.