Bill and Joseph’s series on novel writing Part II: Research

December 1, 2008 at 11:03 am 2 comments

Bill Hussey

Well, Joseph, we’ve discussed The Idea. The germ is in place. After a bit of story development next comes research. How do you approach research?

Joseph D’Lacey

I usually approach it with a very long, sharp object and give it a quick poke to make sure it’s safe to proceed. It usually isn’t – I’m not very keen on research, I’m afraid. Reminds me too much of being at school. That said, there are some subjects you have to look into if you want to avoid producing badly informed fiction. I usually do most of my research online. How about you?


I start from the basis of my outline – this is really the next subject in our discussion I think – but once I’ve developed a skeleton outline of the story I can extrapolate from that what kind of research is needed. For example, in Through a Glass, Darkly I knew I’d have to research a few areas: metempsychosis so that I could put together a convincing ritual, police work and the life of a Roman Catholic priest. The voodoo stuff I could do online. The police stuff – I went into my local police station and just made a nuisance of myself. Eventually, they decided not to arrest me and were very nice about giving me the info I needed. I think when you’re writing stuff like police procedure in an otherwise fantastical story it pays to be accurate – the realism of the cop stuff will add credibility to the story as a whole – so try to get it right.


It’s fascinating to me that you managed to get some time in your local police station without actually committing a crime first. Well done! Apparently, Stephen King did the same when he was researching his novel ‘From a Buick 8’. The only stipulation the police gave him was that he didn’t paint them in a bad light. For MEAT I wanted to get into a slaughterhouse and see what was really going on. But that would have meant lying about why I was there – no meat packer is going to let you in just so you can bad-mouth their business. MEAT, therefore, and everything slaughter-related within it was researched online. Thankfully, plenty of other people have already recorded enough undercover footage for me to have hours of material to work from.

For Garbage Man it was much the same deal. If I’d told a landfill site operator I was writing a novel about the dangers of burying waste, they’d never have let me in. Once again, much of the information came from online research. However, I was lucky enough to meet a few people who worked in the industry and were willing to let slip the realities for me. But what you say about accuracy is very important. I’ve just read ‘Every Dead Thing’. In one scene, two characters go scuba diving in a bayou looking for bodies. The author talks about ‘sucking oxygen’. Divers don’t breathe oxygen – they breathe air. Whilst it was a riveting novel, that inaccuracy pulled me right out of the story. Can’t afford to let that happen knowingly, can we?


Absolutely not. Although I think, in some cases, small slips can be forgiven. I read a great book a few years ago – forgotten the title – about a guy circumnavigating the South Pole. Great research throughout – really convincing. Then I heard that the author had received a letter saying the sailor’s fob watch wouldn’t have been made until 3 years after the story was set. That kind of anally retentive nit picking is unnecessary I think.


True, nit picking sucks – and is probably a sign your reader, by firm choice, isn’t invested in the story. But you never know who’s going to read your book. The fact is, we have to draw the line somewhere in terms of the extent of our research efforts. How much time do you think authors should spend on research, Bill?trinity-college-library-dub


It’s a crucial question I think. It’s also something that doesn’t seem to be taught that much on writing courses but is, in my opinion, as important to a working writer as style, pace, dialogue etc. I really enjoy research and consequently, in the early days of TAGD, I made some big mistakes. I spent 3 weeks researching the witch trials of the 17th Century for example. Totally unnecessary for the story – but I just got caught up in it.

I think a writer needs to set strict parameters as to how much time he will set by to research his subject. For a working writer time is money.


Yes, and there’s always the danger you’ll do research instead of writing. To my mind, that’s a bad thing. After all, for many writers, getting to their desk in the morning and staying there until they hit quota is hard enough. It’s all too simple to say you’re doing research and then spend a few months messing around and stuffing your head with trivia you’ll probably never use. I like to feel I have enough information not only to lend credence to the story but also to fully immerse me in an idea. Then a bit of atmosphere begins to leak from the fact into the fiction. Beyond that, I’m probably just wasting time.


Spot on – writers generally will do anything to avoid actually writing. Doing research is the most legitimate excuse you can come up with. Having said that, I think research is very important, and not just sitting in a library browsing dusty old tomes and stuff. If your story is set in a specific place, do your best to visit it. The Absence has a millhouse as its setting and I spent 2 days just walking around Lincolnshire watermills, breathing in the atmosphere. This is a kind of tactile research – touching the brickwork, smelling the damp air. It all ends up on the page somewhere and adds something to the reality of the story.


I love it that you took time to become part of that landscape, Bill. I don’t think I’ve ever intentionally done that for the sake of fiction. Not yet. Many a time, a place I’m familiar with will crop up but that doesn’t count. I think this must be how you pack so much mood into your fiction and I think it’s something all your reviewers and readers have been struck by. On the subject of ‘how much research?’ I’m far more likely to do too little. A lot of the time, I really feel the urgency to just write the story.

Smaller aspects of accuracy can always be ironed out as part of the editing process. If you’re burning up with a story, use the energy to get the bones on the page. Let’s face it, you can do research any time up to your deadline, right?

Let me ask you this, have you ever picked a subject that you know will require zero research purely so that you can devote all your time to writing? If not, is it something you’d consider?


I’ve never written something that has required no research at all. In fact, in this regard, I’m a bit of a masochist. Example – I could have made Richard Nightingale – one of the central characters in The Absence – a solicitor. I thought about it. I used to be a solicitor and I know that world. But I’m bored rigid by that environment (probably why I left it!) and I’m interested in other people and their lives. So I made him an art dealer and set about researching that. It’s time consuming – it slows me down – but I get a kinda kick out of research and always feel a bit richer when a book is finished and I’ve caught a glimpse of another life.

I’m also very paranoid about getting things wrong – another reason I probably still spend too much time on research!


Again, it’s different for me. I’m tempted to write without the need for research and I often do in short fiction. I love the feeling of a story coming entirely from the imagination – perhaps that’s one of the reasons I love to write. And, when I read a good story that is very obviously pure fantasy, well-communicated but directly from the mind of the writer, I adore it. I also adore it when I manage the feat myself. To be honest, Bill, I think research frightens me a little. I think it somehow makes me feel I need to be academic when there isn’t an academic bone in my body. I also feel sometimes that it isn’t truly a part of the writing process. What am I saying here? I suppose that, for a fiction writer dealing with real-life subjects, research is a necessary evil.


I agree somewhat. Research isn’t writing but I feel that, certainly in the longer form, research is important. I think you’ve got to treat it as a practical thing – as vital in its way as buying paper and ink cartridges. Without it I don’t think I could write. Maybe I treat research as a safety blanket to wrap around myself before I start writing. I’ve said in interviews that I don’t believe in writer’s block – never had it – nor do I believe in the tyranny of the blank page. I think I’ve never had these problems because, before I start, I have my outline and my research. It gives me the confidence to get on with the job of writing.

That aside, can I suggest one very practical research tip?


Please do.


Be nice to people.


That’s imperative. No one’s going to share with you otherwise, right?


Absolutely – it sounds obvious but it’s something I’ve seen writers and researchers in general get sooo wrong. They go into police stations or wherever and start demanding to be seen or dropping off questionnaires without putting together a polite note first. If you need some piece of info, 9 times out of 10 you’ll get it if you ask politely. I’ve got a great relationship with the librarians at my local library. I’ve nurtured it for 10 years. I’ll go in and chat to them – genuinely because they’re lovely people. But they go beyond the call of duty for me because we get on. I can even call them up and ask them to check a fact for me and they call back.

I had a similar experience recently with a company that builds wind turbines. I needed info for book 3 so I met up with them at a local event and gave them some free books and chatted nicely – hey presto – I got a contact with the managing director. So be nice, folks!


This is excellent advice, mate. You know what? You’ve enthused me. You’ve turned me around. I may pick a subject that requires loads of interaction with loads of people in pursuit of the facts for my next work. I know that’s coming off flippant, but I really mean it. I can see an idea forming already…Ah, research! Why was I ever so worried about it?


Don’t, Joseph, this way madness lies!


Too late! It’s a book about voluntary euthanasia. There’ll be no online research for me. This time, I’m going to roll my sleeves up and get involved!


Entry filed under: Writing Chat. Tags: , , , , , .

First Review of ‘The Absence’!

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. thebonebreaker  |  December 1, 2008 at 11:48 pm

    Great Post Guys!!

  • 2. Elaine  |  December 9, 2008 at 11:16 pm

    I’m your girl if you ever need research done and don’t have the time!

    Question about writing horror – how does one establish “atmosphere”? I have read horror literature that was scary but only a few rare books that truly had the hairs on my neck standing up (Dan Simmons’ “Summer of Night” and Stewart O’Nan’s “A Prayer for the Dying” are just two examples). Is it something one can learn or not?


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