Researching novels – when and how

I have quite a neurosis about researching novels. Actually I probably have two. The first is the fanatical introverted Type A personality neurosis about getting everything right. This involves months of reading around a subject, and – where possible – visiting locations, finding foods and fabrics that appear in my fiction, learning arcane things like how to take a keyhole camera photograph or how to tie six different slip knots etc.

The second is the equally fanatical fear of plagiarising, of ‘stealing’ something from another writer and failing to realise I’ve done it. And this fear isn’t in any way abstract – I’ve caught myself doing it sometimes, and had to backtrack and make changes – but what happens if you don’t catch yourself? Terrifying.

So what I tend to do is write around half of the novel, not the first half, nor the second, but a big sketchy whole novel, with loads of gaps that are place-holders for detailed research. Those gaps are filled with X, Y, Z’s, so the poor souls who read my first drafts are often faced with sentences like: Max walked along the path, looking for X mushrooms to cook with Y on the Z stove he and Skoggy shared (where X = the earliest possible mushrooms in the year, Y = a typical breakfast food in 1920s Hampshire and Z = the cooking fuel most likely to be used in a cottage at that time) which is one reason I adore my first readers, they must be saints to put up with me.

Once the bones of the novel are in place, however disjointedly, I go back and fill in the muscles and flesh. I prefer to use primary sources where possible, and census records, for example are brilliant for finding names, while local councils and other municipal authorities often have great resources for finding out where and how people lived. For my wolf novel, I was lucky enough to be granted a residency at Cove Park, where I was able to double check all my geographical and meteorological information by wandering out and inspecting the scenery. Utterly priceless and wonderful.

Secondary sources are okay: history textbooks can correct my ignorance of these kind of subjects too. But the one thing I try to do is stay away from any fiction that covers the period, geographic area, or subject matter that I’m dealing with because, if it’s good, I fear it will seep into my subconscious and then I’ll end up reproducing it in a more or less recognisable form.

Do other writers worry about this, or is it another of my mental quirks?

The picture is of a Rosneath landscape, from one of my Cove Park walks


  1. Jim Murdoch
    8th August 2009

    Me. You have no idea how much trouble I went to to find out the cost of a blow job in Ireland in the 1930s – not an easy one – and the same went for a half pint of Guinness; a pint I could get but was a half pint half the price? Probably not but how much of a difference. In the end I had to fudge both of them. No one else will care but I do and so much. I’m the same with blogs. I check everything. There was even one book review I did where I dragged my aching bones down to the library and did my research the old fashioned way. No, I understand totally. I hate making stuff up. Which is queer because probably 99% of what we write is completely made up.

    I remember feeling for Jeanette Winterson when Carrie pointed out that in a scene set in New York she’d talked about Polo Mints and not Life Savers. I hate being thought of an unprofessional and I’m very well aware that there is a breed of reader – and the same goes for film goers – who delights in picking up on glitches like that.

  2. Kay Sexton
    14th August 2009

    Ach, prices are my real horror – I just wish I could write stuff where I didn’t have to have some idea of average salaries or dresses or whatever.

  3. Jen
    15th August 2009

    Kay, I have often wondered about what you shared. This is a real fear that I’m sure many can relate to. I have such high respect for fiction writers and the many hours spent on research to protect themselves and their work. Your writing is very classy from what I’ve seen and I am sure you do a wonderful job with research also! It seems to me that you deserve more credit! 😉 ~Jen


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