Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Ration your research

By Susanna Beard, author of psychological thriller, Dare to Remember published by Legend Press

Research can be fun! Yes, you read that right. It may be daunting at first, when you need to get going from a standing start and you really don’t know where to look, but researching for a novel can add real depth and interest to your story – and it’s deeply satisfying, too.

Some people absolutely love the process of researching their story idea. They might start online, as I did, and soon find themselves deeply immersed. It’s easy to get side-tracked. Some writers, anxious about getting down to the writing, spend a huge amount of time researching, delaying the moment of putting fingers to keyboard. Their research might be stunning, but it’s no good if they struggle to get to the writing.

I prefer to do it the other way round – I start writing, and when I reach a point when I need to research, I do it then. But even then I don’t let it take over from the writing. I might go back and add to the research later, but as long as I’ve confirmed that the key elements of my story are believable, I plough on.

Let’s assume you have, broadly, your idea for a novel. The story comes from your imagination and your personal experience and has a beginning, a middle and an end. (Well, possibly not an end – yet - if you’re anything like me. Or even a middle!). The research adds to and enhances the story, and you’re gathering knowledge in addition to your own to give it authenticity.

Without authenticity your story will fall at the first hurdle. That first hurdle comes when your reader stops believing in your character, event, place, business, historical period or theme. Your reader will be turned off the story and may never finish. So you need to research the facts around your story to give it depth – to make it believable.

Even if your story is a fantasy, it needs authenticity, through character development, a sense of place and time, and consistency. Your research might involve how people react, or how a material, like wood for example, might behave. It won’t matter if your monsters from outer space behave like humans but it will matter if your humans – all of them - behave like monsters from outer space. Our imaginations can soar, but our stories need to be grounded by (some) research.

If your character suffers from depression, you need to know about it. You need to know how she would look and speak, what her thought processes might be. My protagonist in my debut novel, Dare to Remember, Lisa, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, and she has therapy throughout the book. I researched this by reading about depression – case studies were particularly useful – by talking to therapists, especially those with experience in PTSD, and by listening to their language. It’s all in the book.

But at the same time, it’s not all in the book. One of the big dangers of researching for your novel will be that you’ve put all that time and energy into finding out the facts around your story that you don’t want to waste it. You feel compelled to put it into the narrative. Don’t. The danger is that it will change the pace of the story, bring the reader up short and look like you’re trying too hard to prove you know all about your subject. As a reader I can see when a writer wants to demonstrate their knowledge – about language in a historical era, about the geography of a place, about a real event from the past – and I tend to skip over it.

We need – as writers and as readers – to inhabit our stories. That means, as writers, we need to absorb our research, bringing it in to the story with a light touch and only when it’s appropriate. It needs to be an integral part of the backdrop of the story.

A simple example: my therapist, for example, in Dare to Remember, has a certificate on his wall, showing that he was qualified. I knew he would, from my research. I also knew what he would have needed to do to gain his qualification. But I didn’t need to tell my readers all that – it would have been too much information. All they needed to know, obliquely, was that he was ‘proper.’ He became more real because of that small detail.

So research is important, yes. It gives you credibility and confidence, and your story authenticity. But it needs to be handled with care, woven into the story where it can demonstrate its value in subtle ways. Your readers won’t even notice it, but they will believe your story.

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