Research. It’s one of those things that makes aspiring writers cringe. Some writers seem to rely heavily on it, some writers seem to simply not care. I suppose it all comes down to what you consider to be “research” and how you choose to apply it. I remember when I was a teenager reading Harry Potter and the Tomorrow series and various other young adult or fantasy or sci-fi books, I think I was about fourteen or fifteen when I wanted to start reading more ‘grown up’ books, I guess you would call them. So I went to my parents and asked to read one of their books. My parents were always good in that they read a lot and they encouraged my brother and I to read a lot, and while my brother didn’t really get into reading, I loved it. Now, my parents love crime fiction. They’re fans of John Grisham and over the years they got into Dan Brown, Harlan Coben, Lee Childs, amongst others, but to me, John Grisham is the one author that defines their reading habits. They’ve got all his books and have read all his books and when I asked them for something to read they gave me one of his books. I think it was called The Partner. From what I remember, it was about a partner at a law firm (hence the title) who finds out his partners were planning on cutting him out of some multi-million dollar lawsuit, or something like that, so he swipes the cash and does a runner. A lot of technical legal stuff going on, and the part of the book I remember the best is probably the acknowledgements, where he thanks the lawyers and firms and other resources and such.
It makes sense for an author such as Grisham to put a lot of research into their work to better ground it in reality, so that even in the event of a lawyer picking up one of his books, they’ll see, sure, he’s taken some creative license around the plot, but on the whole it’s plausible. He’s gone to the effort to make sure there’s no plot holes. This is more important when writing realism as opposed to, say, fantasy or surrealism or something. But that’s not to say that research is only for fact-checking chumps who don’t know everything already.
While you may not be one of those authors who need to know what prostitutes charged in western Europe circa 337 BC, you don’t want to be one of those people who thinks writing is just something you do because it’s easy and you don’t need to do any research because you only need your imagination. If you’re one of those people, you can get out now, unless you’re willing to put in the effort to become a real writer. Now, this brings me to a broader definition of research. I’m just making this up as I go along, but I think it can be split into two sections. Reading as research, which teaches us how to write (or how not to write), and world building as research, which fills in all the plot holes and makes sure your fictional world works.
Reading as research is basically just reading on a level where you pick up on an author’s techniques and style. The more you read, the more natural this becomes. You pick up on things most readers don’t pick up on. Why? Because the author doesn’t want you to. They want to naturalise their story, like it appears straight up as you see it on the bookshelf. When you start reading into techniques and stylistic choices, you stop reading the book as an entire, fully formed experience and you start reading it as a constructed text. There’s nothing natural about it. The author constructs that characters and settings and narrative, and it doesn’t just fall into place. The hero’s journey is heavily formulaic. The use of motifs resonate the themes. Signposts act as clues that slip into your subconscious so that you forget about them until they become of use to you again. Everything an author does, they do it to deceive you. As soon as you become aware of what authors will do to fool their audience, the more ammunition you have to do the same. A writer must also be an avid reader. It also helps part of the “research” process to look into particular genres and styles that you’re interested in. if you know what other people have done in the past, you know what to do to differentiate yourself from those writers.
World building as research is entirely subjective to the world(s) in which your writing takes place. In my last post, there’s a conversation in the comments section about Tolkien. He spent decades creating Middle Earth. The Tolkien books published posthumously through his son were taken from the extensive notes. Now, you could argue that world building isn’t really research at all. But that’s not the way I’m choosing to read it right now. Think of it as researching within an incomplete text. Once you get the foundations down, it becomes a matter of filling in the gaps. For writers of realism, or real-world based texts, this filling-in-the-gaps is an issue of solid fact-checking research. For something fantasy oriented, it’s not so much. It may be something or other that you may verify online, but on the whole, nothing too excessive. I guess what I want to say now is that writing something surreal or fantastical or other-worldly does not excuse you from lazy writing. While Grisham knows the legal procedures and details and such better after he wrote his books than he did before, what he’s really doing as part of his research work is getting to know his story world intimately. He knows everything, he wrote the damn thing. Just as Tolkien knew everything about Middle Earth. It’s not just the laws of the land you need to know, but everything. Your characters, plot and setting are the basics. Your narrator.
Coming back to the idea of the story as a construct, the thing about your story is that you need to realise that you’re not just channeling your “muse” or whatever divine inspiration you write with, but you choose every detail that happens in your story, and every detail is significant. If you choose to include or omit something, that is your intention, that is your fault if you didn’t mean thigns to happen that way. If you know what you’re doing, you can construct your story exactly as you want it. You can insert plot holes in your story if you like, so long as you mean to put them there and so long as there’s a reason behind it. Your readers don’t need to know that reason, but you need to know they will probably tweak on that and see that something is going on. The last thing you want is to blunder blindly through a story to find you’ve created a world full of Mary Sues.
So I guess you could say it’s not so much research you’ve got to worry about, but knowledge and effort. If you put the work into your story, and you know what your story is doing, and that is what you decided you want it to do, you’re on to a winner. You’ll look like a fool if you stumble your way through a writing career without fully knowing what you’re doing, without having complete control over your language and your story. The more you read, the more you research, the better prepared you are to face whatever criticisms the literary crowd may want to throw at you. Professional writing is a career, and in every career you’ll probably find those lazy sacks of shit who cut corners and ruin things for those trying to put an honest day’s work in for an honest day’s pay.
I’ve come across writers who are surprised that writers like Stephen King and Chuck Palahniuk can constantly pump out new material. I’ve reached the point where it doesn’t surprise me the slightest. They invest so much time into their work, writing every day, that it pretty much is a full time job (well, more than that, a full time job you take home), and writing is just another day at the office, churning over new ideas daily, showing the initiative to prove their worth at every opportunity. If I had the funding to write full time, no job or uni, I’d be doing the same thing as them, putting my time and resources towards the one thing that would reward me the most: writing.