Samuel Johnson said that a (wo)man ‘’will turn over half a library to make one book.”
Research, in the broadest sense of ‘reading yourself in’, will give you the requisite depth of awareness. No one wants to fall into the trap of ascribing 21st century views to a 2nd century Greek astronomer or to create a framework that is simply not credible.
Patricia Highsmith put it this way “A reader likes to feel that the writer is quite in command of his material and has strength to spare.” So, first of all — and probably before you write a word — you need to be able to write by heart.
In some genres — fantasy and sci-fi for instance — you can make the rules up as you go along; what you are aiming for is internal consistency. But in most fiction, especially genres like historical fiction that purport to offer an insight into a particular world, you will need to supplement imagination with the kind of authority that can only come from general research. This is the type of wide reading that gives you a ‘feel’ rather than a set of undigested facts. This is what will feed your imagination and allow instinct to take over during the writing process.
But when to stop reading?
If you’re working to a deadline, there are the little problems of distraction, time soak, stalled impetus. What are the most useful sources? A rule of thumb — if in doubt, look for the firsthand account. If you’re working on an historical project, are there diaries or letters you can read? If you are writing about a specific contemporary world, are there blogs? Photographs are also useful because they import a degree of objectivity. Often, the most interesting details are the photographer took for granted or didn’t realize she was capturing.
So, find your expert.
In my first novel, one of my characters was a Luftwaffe ‘lamplighter’ – a member of one of the crews who set fires in order to ‘light’ the targets for the bombers following behind. I needed to know about what it felt like to be up there – was he freezing, terrified, bored? I searched online for a primary source, and eventually found someone in Melbourne, Australia whose elderly neighbor, a former Luftwaffe conscript, was willing to interviewed. I emailed my questions and got an audiotape back. The interviewee turned out to be quite a different character from my fictional Oskar, but he taught me about particular aspects of his experience that I’d have struggled to find in a history book — recreational fishing trips, the reality of being a hated occupier in a small Breton town, techniques for removing hornets nests, the iron grip of male comradeship.
At the moment I’m talking to several people about the fabric of everyday life in Algiers — What do you serve someone if they come to your house? What do you do on your day off? How do you celebrate a wedding? Do your friends have sex outside marriage/drink/break other taboos? What is the gossip about politicians? Where are the new cafes opening? What is the attitude to Chinese, Syrian, sub-Saharan migrants? For contemporary settings, online newspapers are also useful — particularly the Lifestyle pages.
Once you’ve felt your way in, it’s best to confine detailed research to the things you really need to know. Even If you are writing a contemporary book, history is very important. You need to understand what has shaped a society or a set of characters, but be careful not to get bogged down in endless detail that just gets shoehorned in. That way madness, eternal procrastination, and clumsy writing lie. And try not to write about places you haven’t visited. Yes, I know you can find out the colour of the tablecloths in Venice’s Taverna La Fenice by simply looking online. But it’s very easy to miss things, too. For the ineffable essence of a place, there’s no substitute for stepping off a plane.
In terms of psychological or medical research, scientific verisimilitude is necessary if you’re claiming your character suffers from this or that syndrome. Otherwise, I wouldn’t worry too much. People are infinitely variable and if you avoid labels and imagine yourself into a particular mind and body you can generally get away without too much by way of research.
Once you have a ‘feel’ for time, place, character, nothing succeeds quite like a well-placed detail for bringing a scene to life — think Hilary Mantel’s moth hole in that famous sleeve. If your character is a singer, for example, then I do think you need to understand the unique type of neuroses that tend to afflict such people — their terror of colds, of damage to the vocal chords — and the technical difficulties involved in a singing a particular type of music. Yet again, you can pick up a lot from firsthand accounts.
One telling detail will do much more work for you than acres of downloaded research. For example, if you are writing about a nineteenth century seamstress, have her use the right kind of materials, wear typical clothing, sit in the right kind of chair, and then simply employ a bit of Method writing to bring the scene to life. Spend an evening, or even an hour or two, sitting in a cold room bent over your work in dim lighting, and you should be able to extrapolate enough from that experience combined with your research in order to create a convincing seamstress.
So there we have it — imaginative engagement complemented by targeted research. Wear your character’s shoes, and you won’t go too far wrong.
Annemarie Neary was born in Northern Ireland. She studied literature at Trinity College Dublin, and qualified as a barrister at King's Inns.
Her novel The Orphans is out now in Kindle and hardcover from Hutchinson (Penguin Random House UK). A Windmill Books paperback is forthcoming in April 2018. Siren was published by Hutchinson in 2016, with a Windmill paperback out earlier this year, and A Parachute in the Lime Tree was published by The History Press Ireland in 2012. She is currently working on a fourth novel.
She holds a Masters in Venetian Renaissance art from the Courtauld Insitute, and Venice — its locations, historical events, and artworks — has inspired a number of short stories. http://www.annemarieneary.co.uk/