On Researching Contemporary Fiction

I don’t think it’s particularly big-headed to say I have a somewhat decent set of writing skills at this point – it is my job, after all – but world-building is definitely not something that comes to me naturally. This didn’t matter, I told myself, because I mainly write stories set in the real world in the modern-day.

Well, as you can probably guess, I was wrong.

I may have been basing my descriptions on places and things that already exist, but I don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of stuff even I know fairly well. Like, I can picture a road I’ve walked down dozens of times, but I won’t necessarily know the name of that road because it hasn’t ever been relevant to me before. And the thing about characters is that, if done right, they take on a life of their own, which means things will be relevant to them that have nothing to do with you as a writer.

If you don’t want your reader to stumble over something out of place, sooner or later, you’ll have to look things up. Even if the real world is your source material, the reader probably won’t know which part of it you’re drawing direct inspiration from, so you’ve got to rebuild that world inside their head – not as big a deal as creating an imaginary empire from scratch, but still no mean feat.

In preparation for National Novel Writing Month last year, there were a series of Instagram inspiration prompts and one of them was ‘Last Writing Related Search.’ Displayed in the photo, below, is what was in my Google search history.

Yes, it was all research for my book, odd as it may sound.

Since then, I’ve actually gone even further, to figure out what subjects my main characters would have studied at G.C.S.E., what dates the exams would have been on, and plotted this info on a calendar next to the plot points of the book.

No one else is ever going to need this information, and it doesn’t end up in the book directly, but it certainly helped me get my head around timelines and pacing, which ultimately makes the book better.

I heard Garrett Carr, a lecturer from QUB, give a really wonderful talk on researching books at the publishing conference I attended in Belfast last month.

“Why research?” He asked. “For authenticity.” And not just realism with respect to physical descriptions, but emotional authenticity, speaking to a deeper truth.

Fiction, by its nature, is artificial. For the reader to suspend disbelief, they must be invested in the story. You’ve got to make it true to make it good, either on that factual or emotional level.

Sometimes the boundaries between the physical and the emotional are not clear cut, and it is artistic license we use to solve this conflict.

For example, I once wrote a poem about something that happened to me in childhood: when a concrete slab fell on my foot. Being young, I can’t remember how many slabs there actually were stacked in my back yard but, for the first line of the poem to be as powerful as possible, I decided that it was seven.

‘Seven slabs stacked on end’ is always going to sound better than two, or five, or twenty-three and, in the end, it doesn’t matter how many there actually were. No one can go back and check and anyone reading or hearing the poem can imagine the scene.

I bet you’re wondering what on earth was going on with those slabs and how I, as a child, ended up with one of them on my toes. Well, see, this just proves my point. I’ve hooked you into the memory with emotional truth. (Private message me if you’re really dying to know the gory details, but it’s probably juicier to just leave it at that.)

Another important tip is to not info dump. You know how I was talking about all the research I did to my book better? I could have copied and pasted that directly into my text, but the text would have suffered for it. Sometimes, less is more. (As with the tale of my broken toes, but enough about concrete.)

By now, I hope I’ve emphasised the importance of research. But how do you do it?

Read. A lot, but not so much as it gets in the way of your writing. (A delicate balance to find, sometimes. Everyone’s fallen down a Wikipedia hole at some time or another.)

Have conversations. Ask questions. Visit your setting so that you can ground your words with a sense of place.

Someone asked Garrett which comes first, writing or research and there is no right answer to this. It’s a chicken or egg thing. You might not know what you need to know until you go to write it, but all I can say is, thank god for the internet!

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