Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Research, Research, Research

So, when exactly should a writer do research, and when is it OK just to make stuff up?

This is tricky. 
I wrote a little piece of flash fiction yesterday; it was almost exactly a thousand words long, and, in it, a character made something. The who and the what don’t matter, and it wasn’t real-world, so, how long do you suppose I spent doing research? 
The answer to that question would be more than twice as long as I spent writing the story. 
The what is a real object that can be made by hand, and I wanted to describe that. I could, I suppose, have made it up, and there’s a decent chance that none of the readers would know the difference, but I wanted to be confident that I knew how the object should be made. The story is better because of it.
I began with ‘wiki’, read some passages from a reference text on the subject that just happened to be sitting on a shelf in the husband’s office, and I watched several YouTube videos. I could, I suppose, have done less research, after all, I didn’t actually use quite a lot of the material I worked my way through; I didn’t need to use it all, because I wasn’t writing an instruction manual, I was writing a story. 
The point is that the character knew how to make the object; he’d done it a thousand times before, he was experienced at it, and I didn’t want him to be all fingers and thumbs, because I wanted him to be thinking about something else while his hands were working.
There is a balance in all things. I don’t drive, but that doesn’t matter if all I want to do in the story is get a couple of characters from A to B in a car. On the other hand, I’m not a mechanic, but if a fan belt breaks in my story, set in 1973, and if my hero is going to effect a repair with a pair of his passenger’s tights, I’d better know more than the fact that ‘American Tan’ was the bestselling colour for hosiery in the UK in 1973. Of course, that’s a detail that I might want to use, especially if the scene is intended to be amusing.
Research is not always essential, but a few well-chosen details will add verisimilitude to everything a writer does; on the other hand, wholesale dumping of research, simply so as not to waste the time spent collecting it, is always going to make for a dull, soulless read.


  1. I've spent the last year or so writing a book largely set on a dilapidated battleship in the first world war; I found the more research I did, the more I needed to do.

    I started with the intention of not doing too much research - the spine of the tale was a wonderful history teacher had told me, and was almost too scared to research too deeply into it, as I thought the facts might get in the way. I had a grand idea about the nobility of oral storytelling at the time. Don't ask why...

    Anyway, I decided to do a little research, but the more I did, the more I realised I needed (or maybe wanted) to do. I started with what did these ships look like, sail like, what colour were they?... and ended up wondering how did people speak in 1914? How did they court each other? What newspapers did they read? What brands of coffee did they drink?

    I think the book is richer for all the incidental detail; better, I'm not sure. On balance, I think I would have finished it a damn sight earlier had I just made it up and hoped for the best. Maybe next time...

    1. Just try not to be too sad when an editor comes in an excises chunks of your beautifully detailed prose.