How do you feel about doing research for your writing?
Do you like it or loathe it?
I’ll be honest. I don’t like doing research for stories. It feels too much like homework, which I hated at school. I prefer to make up things and fill in the things I don’t know later. Unfortunately, research is a necessary evil for any subject I don’t know well – so I do it, reluctantly, with my teeth gritted.
I often start out with a bit of Googling, some downloading from Wikipedia, a visit to my local library, and then I buy a few non-fiction books on the subject written for laypersons, like the books for writers by Writers’ Digest and the easy-to-understand Dorling Kindersley reference books.
Then, if I still don’t feel like I know the subject, I’ll buy some more books written by experts for experts, the kind of books that have a million pages of appendices and footnotes so dense the pages look black with tiny writing.
I also want to know enough to be confident, when I do finally write a story, that I don’t rehash old material – so I also buy a load of fiction, which is the one part of research that I do like. I love reading fiction. But nothing I do ever makes me feel truly ready. There is always something else to learn. Research becomes obsessional and addictive. Eventually I often spend more money than I will ever earn from selling the completed story.
It seems like madness to work this way – but I don’t regret doing the research once it is done. I always learn something new and frequently discover a new area of interest. I might not use the research for that project (or the next one) – but it can be useful for another one, later on. I feel it is better to know something and not use it than to never know it.
A few years ago I wanted to write a book set in America, specifically on an island somewhere remote, where the inhabitants would all know each other. I had just read Snow Falling on Cedars and wanted to write something similar – setting a moody mystery crime drama on an island. I liked the TV show Providence – so I chose Rhode Island for the setting.
I didn’t know much about Rhode Island, but I researched it by buying several guidebooks of New England. I discovered east of Providence several islands exist perfect for setting a crime story. The residents are a mix of rich and poor, all living together far from the mainland, isolated for many months when the ferries do not operate because the weather is too rough. It was ideal for my novel Acting Dead. I didn’t use a real island for the crimes committed in my mystery story – but my fictional island, Cape Mistral, would not have felt real to me if I had not gritted my teeth and done the research.
I’d love to know what you think about research. How much do you do? Do you love it or hate it? What resources do you use?