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?
Boyce does as little research as possible in the early stages, to protect the integrity of the story. “For later drafts, I research as I go, in bite-size chunks rather than one big block. I want to absorb the details that inform the atmosphere of the time, and let them flow into the story as I write, rather than consciously incorporating facts.”
For Cartwright, research is “liberating”, and, as a starting point, gives him ideas.
O’Connor has the opposite experience, and explains that each draft of a novel has a different purpose. “I think you write the novel first, getting the emotional heart of it right, and then you write it all again to improve the sentences, and only at the very end of the process do you give the whole thing a read to make sure you didn’t make any factual errors.”
Baker’s approach works in triplicate: research at the start, all the way through, and at the end. “You have to know a period to want to write about it in the first place. But in the process of writing, you discover what you need to know to make the story work and give the novel texture, and so you keep on with the research. At the end you’re often left with gaps that need filling in – but you’d never have known that you needed to know that particular thing had you not started to write.”
A writer wants a reader to invest in their story, but what if the research becomes showy scaffolding that overshadows the story itself? Many historical works are weighed down by laborious details about events or etiquette of the time.
“Research can influence the telling,” says Boyce. “It can become so intoxicating that it corrupts the writing, driving the narrative off track for the chance to include some fascinating fact or detail. ‘Oh look, weasel testicles had prophylactic properties; I have to include that.’ When research weighs down the narrative, it feels like the writer is shouting, ‘This is from another era’. I don’t think establishing that kind of distance is useful. The story should feel immediate even if it’s set a thousand years ago.”
When Justin Cartwright was writing Lion Heart, he “felt pressure” to include all his research, and realised that a necessary part of the process was “knowing what to cull”.
We’ve all read novels where the author’s application of research threatens to strangle the narrative, and takes the reader right out of a novel. “One minute you’re proceeding nicely into the story, believing in the characters, enjoying the prose,” says O’Connor. “And then, wham. The story stops and there’s a Powerpoint presentation on the inadequate dentistry or the interesting footwear they had in those distant days. And you know what’s happened: the author found a fascinating article while researching in the National Library and just hasn’t been able to leave it out. It’s horrible because the novel has now been murdered and can’t be resuscitated, no matter the author’s skill.”
Baker advises writers to be hyper-vigilant in the editing process. “One person’s interesting historical detail can quickly become someone else’s clutter. It can happen when I’ve included something simply because I’ve found it out and like it, rather than it actually contributing anything very much to the novel. I think it maybe has to do with something having emotional significance – you include it because it matters, it tells you something about the character, or progresses the story.
“What historical detail often provides is texture: it renders the world convincing, so it doesn’t pay to be totally ruthless either. It’s about finding a balance. The one thing you don’t want a reader to start to think is, why are you telling me this? If you’re describing some historical practice or artefact in great detail, it’s going to start looking very significant in story terms.”
All those late nights in the National Library or site visits that supplement the actual writing of a book are useful, but be ruthless, says O’Connor. “Every time you put a fact into a novel, the novel dies a tiny bit. Insert the factual sparingly and atone for your sin by writing three really beautiful sentences for every fact. It’s a sort of reafforestation system. The ecology of the novel depends on facts being hunted down and, ideally, made extinct.”
How to Write a Book continues each Monday. Sinead Gleeson will host a readers How to Write a Book Q&A with Eimear McBride, Mike McCormack and Alan McMonagle at the Galway Arts Festival on July 20th. The event is free but ticketed. See giaf.ie