Never let research get in the way of a good story
Authors Joseph O’Connor, Jo Baker, Niamh Boyce and Justin Cartwright on the importance and pitfalls of research
Jo Baker: ‘If you haven’t got a story to hang your information on, no amount of research is going to make a novel sing’
Joseph O’Connor: ‘We mustn’t inflame the reader’s disbelief by having people in a novel about the 1840s talk like characters in Friends.’ Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Niamh Boyce: ‘Research can influence the telling. It can become so intoxicating that it drives the narrative off track.’ Photograph: Alan Betson
Justin Cartwright: ‘I’m writing a book that recreates a Boer massacre. My research gives a much more nuanced account than the story I knew’
There is a cliche when it comes to writing: if in doubt, leave it out. Or, when it comes to fiction: just do some proper research. Providing an informed basis for your story – especially if it’s historical or grounded in real events – is necessary, but balancing the scales of research and imagination is crucial.
Niamh Boyce’s debut novel, The Herbalist, is set in 1940s Ireland. She says it’s important to limit the scope of research. “One thing can lead to another until you’ve strayed out of the territory of your original idea. Research is to help the story come alive, not to weigh it down with facts.” Boyce used a real story, which she discovered via an archived newspaper clipping, as the starting point for The Herbalist.
Justin Cartwright, author of Other People’s Money, and more recently Lion Heart, says that doing research on real events can challenge assumptions and turn up surprises. He also believes that physically seeing the place you’re writing about is helpful.
“At the moment I’m writing a book which recreates a Boer massacre in 1838. About 100 were murdered by Dingane, the Zulu king, but my research – including a visit to the scene, and documents in Johannesburg’s Brenthurst Library – gives a much more nuanced account of what happened than the story I was brought up on.”
Joseph O’Connor’s latest novel is The Thrill of It All, but he went back in time for Star of the Sea, Redemption Falls and Ghost Light.
“Whether writing about the past or the present, it’s essential to get the background facts correct because readers will expect that you do,” he says. “We mustn’t inflame the reader’s disbelief by having people in a novel about the 1840s talking like characters out of Friends – ‘Like, dude, this famine is totally, like, gross’ – but a story needs a certain amount of playfulness at its heart, otherwise it won’t work.”
When it comes to authenticity, Jo Baker had another issue on her hands. Not only is her debut novel, Longbourn, a historical one, but it also tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ point of view. “Research is at once of secondary importance, and absolutely vital,” says Baker. “If you haven’t got a story to hang your information on, no amount of research is going to make a novel sing.”
Even if a novel requires a certain amount of checking and exploring, writers should beware of getting bogged down in facts at the expense of putting words on the page. At heart, a book is an act of imagination, so should you write first and verify later, or start with facts and pivot your fiction around it?