The most frequent piece of advice given to new writers is: ‘write what you know.’ This is not bad advice by any scope of the imagination – the self is our constant point of reference through which we connect with and understand the world around us – yet sticking only to what we formally know can be severely limiting, especially in a form that turns on invention and imagination. Furthermore, if every writer wrote only what they knew we would instantly lose genres such as Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Detective Fiction etc, and every book would be more or less a paper outpouring of the latest reality Tv. The sheer horror. Without discounting this advice completely, however, it seems the better, editor’s version would be: ‘write what interests you; write what you want to know more about; write in a way that even scares you a little.’ The worst kept secret in the world is also a writer’s best friend: RESEARCH. It means that we don’t have to stick trenchantly to what we know, and every good work of fiction has a solid base of endless trawling through sources behind it. Taking Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as an example, recently made into a BBC drama with much acclaim, Atwood included nothing in her work which hadn’t happened somewhere, at some point, in human history. She took what was known – not necessarily by herself – and transformed it through pure invention. If you could ever reduce writing down to a mathematical formula, that’s it.
Doing research for a novel, however, is not something to be taken lightly, as everyone who has ever attempted it knows. Tony Stark arrogance and intellect aside, the process is a complicated and usually disproportionally protracted one, which can end up becoming a project in its own right. Where does the cut-off point come, for example? How do you know that you have done enough research? When does all the juicy information you find stop firing off ideas for yet more research? We all know preparing for/planning a novel can be the best way to actually avoid writing it (and fool ourselves we are still being productive). Research is an indispensable tool for writing, but, like all tools, it has to be used with caution and at least some framing guidelines. As part of my undergraduate course, I took a module called Research Skills for Writers which, like Ronseal, pretty much did what it said on the tin. It involved picking a subject to research and producing an inspired creative writing piece, as well as reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of my methods. Since a couple of years have passed since then, I thought I could do with a refresher course, and also share the advice that I was given in case it might benefit someone else. (For anyone who is interested, the research topic I chose was 19th Century ‘Insane’ Asylums. Which, I promise, is more fun than it sounds).
Good Research Practices:
- Always make your topic specific and concise. Know exactly what you want to research before you start and ignore the temptation to expand it; you only need enough information to comfortably work with, no-one is going to make you take a degree in it. Unless it really interests you. Defining your research topic in two moderate sentences is a really good exercise in narrowing your focus, similarly, if your research is concerned with a historical time period, make sure to implement strict boundaries, such as: ‘The career of Elvis Presley from 1956 to 1961,’ for example. Always make it specific. Research can be, and usually is, an ongoing process, but you should be able to complete individual projects with certainty.
- Take advantage of ALL types of sources. The 21st Century makes it almost natural to open up your favourite search engine, type in your question, and score over 1,000 hits (a mere 1% of which are probably useful to you). The existence of the internet has literally transformed the process of research, making it efficient and time-saving, but even then it doesn’t discredit the value of other sources. Instead of reaching straight for the keyboard, trying picking up a book on your subject area; it was written by someone with a lot more expertise in their field than the average Wikipedia page. If your topic is a popular/mainstream one, watch documentaries, listen to interviews, visit museums and/or galleries, talk to someone with first-hand experience, and never forget the fiction/ drama/ poetry that has invariably come before. The more sources you use, the richer the information you will acquire.
- Keep a note of the sources you have used. Every one of us has experienced that soul-crushing moment when we realize we have read the perfect paragraph of information somewhere within the last five books and 2000+ pages. Chances are, you will never find it again, I never have anyway. Therefore, one of the best research practices you could ever get into is keeping a note of all the sources you have used. Whether it’s copying and pasting website addresses into a document, or writing down the author, title, and publication details of a book you absolutely can’t go wrong if you ever need to look them up again. You can go even further still and note down the specific chapter or even page number where your information is. Personally, if the information is short enough, I type it out verbatim with a full reference so I always have a copy of it and know where it originally came from.
- Always evaluate any website you use. It goes without saying, but not all information on the internet is reliable, or even informed. There are many genuine, intelligent sites, but there are more that are, well … shall we say total crap? If you are thinking about using information from a sight, take a few minutes to give it an evaluation and see how it scares. You might look, for example, at how it’s presented. Does it look professional? Is it well set out with a thoughtful design, that someone has obvious put time and effort into, or is it simply hashed together? What is its relevance to your topic? A.K.A is it equal to or below your level as a writer, is it aimed at a younger audience than you require? What is its viewpoint? Everything is written from some ideological standpoint, does it satisfy or contradict your topic? Who is the author, and what are their credentials? Is it someone professionally qualified, or Johnny Cool with all the answers. Finally, when was it written? Is it current, innovative, or has it been outshone by more recent research?
- Try using search wildcards. There are a few tricks you can use to limit your search engine hit results and make them more relevant. Punctuation marks aren’t just powerful in a sentence! Using an asterisks (*) after a search term offers alternative endings: eg. Dicken* gives Dickens, Dickensian, Dickens’ etc. Using a question mark (?) as a substitute for a letter in a search term offers alternative spellings: eg. Wom?n gives both woman and women. Speech marks (” “) can be used to search for a complete phrase: eg “the significance of Dumbledore’s death.” The word ‘AND’ can be used to combine search terms: eg. Frankenstein AND villainy. Alternatively, the word ‘OR’ can be used to search for two possible outcomes: eg. Love OR lust. Finally, placing ‘NOT’ before a word excludes all instances of that word: eg. Superheroes NOT Spider-Man. Sorry Spider-Man.
Hope this has been helpful. As always, let me know what you thought, and if there is anything you want me to add to the ‘Truths’ series, don’t hesitate to ask!