Reasons for NOT Writing… #4 : “I need to research this.”

Reason #4 : “I need to research this.”

“Every writer I know has trouble writing.”
— Joseph Heller


The need for research is a doozy of an excuse for two reasons; it feels like writing, and it’s scope is almost infinite. You can expand it any direction, from developing your story’s background and characters, to working out the intricacies of the plot. If the action takes place in a fictional town, you need to build a town – give it some history, geography, a climate. If it takes place in a real one, one you’ve never seen before, no worries. We’ve got some fantastic tools these days. Check it out on Google Maps, zoom in and move about the place in Street View. Hey, there’s a coffee shop I can use. And the getaway car could be parked in that alley. Boy, readers are going to love my accuracy and detail.

Or perhaps not. But don’t listen to me.


Listen to Lee Child

A couple of years ago, thanks to a Goodreads promotion,[1] I got to ask Lee Child – the best-selling, one-draft writer we first met in the Introduction as Jim Grant – how he fits in research. Here’s my question and his response:

Geoff Palmer:
I’m interested in your writing process. You’ve said elsewhere that the final book is pretty much your first draft; that you sit down, start writing and see where the story leads – both you and Reacher. But what about research? A lot of your books contain detailed descriptions of places, weapons, etc. Do you incorporate that as you go? Or do you add these details in later, once you’ve got the story sorted out?

Lee Child:
You could say a writer’s whole life is research. Everyone I meet, everything I read or see or experience is packed away for future use. Whether to do extensive research to ensure all your facts line up is an interesting question. When writing fiction, I don’t think accuracy matters as much as whether people perceive accuracy. If I wrote a novel set in New York City, I could make it extremely accurate, but my guess is the more accurate I made it, the more people might find it inaccurate. What matters is not what NYC is really like, but what people generally think it’s like. Readers will sometimes mail me to correct mistakes they’ve found in my books and sometimes they’re right, but surprisingly it’s usually the things I research most carefully that they say I got wrong. All in all, if you’re convincing rather than accurate, you’ll probably please more readers.


Fiction vs non-fiction

At this point, writers of non-fiction will be shaking their heads while gesturing to the stacks of notes they’ve accumulated and all the gaps still unfilled. It’s okay for you guys … And it is. You’re right, carry on. But let’s be clear: research isn’t writing. Working up backgrounds, plotting, character development, story arcs … none of it is writing. All that ultimately counts is the words in your book, not the words your readers will never see, which is why I’m going to say this in a centred, italicised, bold font:

Only writing is writing!

No one’s immune. That Lee Child quote above? I almost zipped over to Goodreads to look it up. (It won’t take a second. Do you remember it quite right? Will it really fit there, or does it need more of an introduction …?)

But this is my writing time. Writing time is a separate beast from research time, so for now the what-will-be-a-Lee-Child quote reads: ?? Lee C on Goodreads. (Remember that double-question mark? I told you about it in Reason #2. I use it as an easily-searchable placeholder for things I’ll check, correct or add later – in my non-writing time.)

At some point you need to finish with research, (or backgrounding, or plotting, or character development), and start working on what readers will eventually see; the finished text. There’ll still be gaps. You can’t think of everything beforehand. You’ll still hit Lee Child moments like I did above. But don’t let them interrupt your flow. Add a placeholder and perhaps a note so you can sort it out later, then press on. Because only writing is writing.


Makers of other worlds

Certain fictional genres often require the construction of whole other worlds. Distant planets, perhaps. Alien species. Or an alternate Earth where magic and mystery reign supreme. Historical fiction too may require a mix of hard research and what’s called world-building – creating imagined places that feel solid, consistent and real to the reader.

I’m a fan of the galaxy-spanning works of Peter F Hamilton and Kevin J Anderson who produce fat doorstops of books featuring dozens of characters on multiple worlds. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn Trilogy, for example, runs to 1.2 million words. Obviously, the characters, planets and the sequence of events he charts need consistency and careful planning. (The last dozen pages of my copy of The Neutronium Alchemist are occupied by a timeline and a cast of characters, ships, habitats and planets.) So surely world-building qualifies as writing?

Nope. Only words on the page – the story itself, what the reader will read – actually count.

This might seem unnecessarily harsh, but it’s too easy to sit back day-dreaming and building a detailed world or backstory – often far more than you’ll ever need – and kid yourself you’re making progress on The Book. You’re not. Not really. Only writing is writing.


How much background do you really need?

A few hundred years ago, few people ever left their village. Before railways, the fastest way to way to travel was on horseback, and horses were luxury items most people couldn’t afford. Tourism didn’t really emerge until the Victorian era, and even then it was only for the privileged few. These days, however, we’re all tourists and travellers, even if we’ve never left home.

Every day, television and movies bring us in fresh views of the world and the people that inhabit it. If I mention a character, snow-blind, battling a fierce storm amidst cliffs of ice and drifting bergs, or another, parched and gasping, reaching the top of a dune to look out over an arid landscape beneath a searing, pitiless sky, there’s a good chance you’ll immediately form detailed mental images redolent of the Arctic and the Sahara, even if you’ve never actually visited either place.

But that hasn’t always been the case. Someone born and raised on a Pacific atoll (without TV) would need a lot more than “drifting bergs” to put them in the picture. Likewise, one of Dickens’ working-class readers would have demanded a bit more than “arid landscape” to give them a feel of the desert. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t describe places, just that the need to do so is less these days because both you and your reader will have similar reference points. Imagine a sunny afternoon in Central Park or cycling across the Golden Gate bridge. What colour’s the bridge? What do you see across the park above the tree line? I’m sure your mental images of both are similar to mine, even if you’ve not visited either city.

It is, of course, a matter of degree and ultimately a creative decision. Place and setting often dictate the mood. Consider this, the opening lines of possibly my favourite Dickens novel, Our Mutual Friend:

“In these times of ours, though concerning the exact year there is no need to be precise, a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark bridge which is of iron, and London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in.”

Would it matter to you, the reader, if Dickens had mixed up his bridges; had said Southwark was stone and London Bridge iron? Some Londoners would have thrown up their hands in dismay at the error, but I’m guessing most wouldn’t even have noticed because the background was just that: background. We’re already drawn into the story so a few minor details about bridge construction really don’t matter. As Lee Child says, “… if you’re convincing rather than accurate, you’ll probably please more readers.”


Putting worlds together

I’m not suggesting research, world-building and backstories are bad ideas. Not at all. Atmosphere is important, and incorporating interesting details can be a great addition to your story, broadening and deepening it while adding layers of interest and illumination. Look at Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall with its brilliant depiction of sixteenth-century England. But background details must be applied with a light touch, not used to batter your readers. There’s a temptation to think, “I’ve done all this work so I’m damn well going to use it,” then try to wedge it in, often to the detriment of the story. Keep your cleverness in the background. Let it inform and illuminate, not dominate your tale. And if in doubt, leave it out.

“Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It ­­usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.”
— Hilary Mantel

By all means do research and background preparation if you must. Both can provide useful adjuncts and help you immerse yourself in your story. But incorporate it lightly and don’t fool yourself you’re really writing. Unless it’s adding words to the end product, it’s not.


♦ Research has its place, but don’t get bogged down in it. As Lee Child suggests, being convincing rather than accurate will generally please more readers.
♦ Some stories, particularly in genres such as fantasy and sci-fi, do require world-building, maps, detailed histories, timelines and so on.
♦ Don’t beat your readers over the head with the results of your clever research (or world-building). They’re there for a good read, not a lecture.



[1] Lee Child interviewed on Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/questions/157492.


Reasons for NOT Writing & How to Overcome Them is published
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Previous parts: Introduction, Reason #1, Reason #2, Reason #3

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