Creative Writing: When Research Matters

Every year I intend to go along to lots of events at the Manchester Literature Festival, and every year I completely fail in my task. This year, at least, I did make it to one.

Along with the new(ish) Creative Writing Meetup group in Manchester, I went to the Fiction Debut event. The festival showcases three new writers (or at least, new to novel writing). This year they featured Marli Roode, author of Call It Dog, Gabriel Gbadamosi, author of Vauxhall, and James Wheatley, author of Magnificent Joe, in discussion. The writers introduced us to their books and read from them, then afterwards the host put questions to all three authors. It was a fun event, and while none of the books sounded hugely up my street, I felt that all three writers had very interesting and distinct stories to tell.

mlf-fiction-debut

Something one author said, however, I did find quite troubling. When asked if he had done much research for his book, James Wheatley said that he hadn’t felt it necessary. In many cases I’m lenient when it comes to research. I don’t like doing it myself unless I feel it’s really important and will have a strong impact on what/how I write. But in this case, it felt a bit callous. The book in question features a man who, as the writer put it, ‘is just a bit funny in the head’, but we assume he has learning difficulties.

I felt bad for the author, who accidentally sent us away with a bad taste in our mouths. I’m sure (or I hope) he was caught off guard by the question, but I couldn’t shake the sense of apathy I got from his assumption that he didn’t need to research that character, because it was based on an acquaintance he’d known as a teenager. His defence, that it wouldn’t feel right to have clinical definitions and explanations coming out of his working class characters’ mouths, felt like a flimsy excuse. I haven’t read the book so I cannot comment on the characterisation in it, but it made me think a lot about when research can be important, or even essential, in the process of writing a novel.

As I said, I don’t like to research, while some authors love to do it. I know some who spend so much time researching that they never get around to writing down their ideas. To me, research is much more about the world-building and character-building than the actual words that make it into the novel. If I were to write about an alcoholic, I would research alcoholism and people’s experience of living with it, because it’s outside my own frame of experience. If I were writing about a character with a disability, I would want to know exactly what was affecting them, why, and how, even if it never came up in the book. It might be a passing mention, but I think a writer needs to know everything possible about their characters.

The thing is, I don’t think you can start out knowing everything about your character (and if you do, it’s rare), because they will always surprise you in the writing. The more you write, the more you learn about them. But that doesn’t mean you can just sit back and expect them to tell you everything. All characters come from an author’s imagination, and one person’s imagination can only tell them so much.

I’d be very interested to hear other people’s thoughts on this.

wellsvernesm

Borrowed from the incredible Kate Beaton of Hark! A Vagrant. (If it’s possible you haven’t yet read this, please do).

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About sarahgracelogan

Sarah Grace is an itinerant scribbler and general layabout. She runs a writing group called CAKE.shortandsweet, because any form of procrastination from actual writing is always attractive to the serious author of refined taste. When not distracted by laser pens, Sarah Grace writes novels, short stories and flash fiction, poetry, stage scripts and screenplays. She has performed her work at Stirred Poetry, Bad Language and Tongue in Cheek Manchester. Her first publication, Humping the Boonies is a self-published chapbook available directly from the author, or from Travelling Man, Manchester. You can find more details about her ongoing projects, not to mention a selection of free stories up for grabs right here on her blog. https://sarahgracelogan.wordpress.com/about/ She also likes to talk about theatre, film, books, photography, and especially games and other things that involve collaborative storytelling. Sarah Grace likes feedback, in whatever form it comes.

6 comments

  1. Funny you mention research as I’ve just started writing a novel set in First Century Rome during the rule of Vespasian. As I was writing I was checking details on certain things as I went along – mostly wikipedia so far and some reputable historical resource websites. I don’t know if I will need to dust off some of my uni books as my intention is not to educate; but I at least want to get as much right as possible.

    With my academic background, I love research and I love sorting the wheat from the chaff with regard to the sources. You’re right though about getting too bogged down in detail. I expect it from certain types of book (historical fiction because that’s where my background is) but not so much from others. When it comes to mental health that does leave a sour taste in my mouth for personal reasons.

    • I think there are very few of us who haven’t been touched by mental health issues in some way, whether ourselves or people we know. Perhaps that’s why I was extra-sensitive to this particular book, but I have the same reaction when I’m reading about a different type of character who doesn’t seem well-researched or fully rounded out.

      Like you say, I think research can be great when it’s something you’re really interested in, and it can add a lot of depth to your writing. I just recently started reading the Boudica books by Manda Scott. They’re fascinating because although most of it is necessarily invented, you can really feel just how much research has gone into the world building.

      • I couldn’t get past the first one, personally. There was too much new age stuff in it for me. I hope you enjoy the series better than I did!

  2. I think this is a really interesting post – I definitely agree with you about research being something that we might not like but can’t always avoid. As you say, it’s a balance we have to strike. With characters’ idiosyncrasies, it doesn’t do to pin them all down (or try to, at least!) before we get started. But, with issues that might be sensitive – and affect people in the real world – I think it’s our duty of care as writers not to trample all over them.

    I had an interesting discussion on social media recently about writing from the POV of a person of colour (I’m white). It took us on to talking about writing from a lesbian perspective (I’m straight but a good friend who is lesbian contributed to the discussion) and other similar issues. I’m in the process of writing a short piece from the POV of a character who is a devout Hindu, which is giving me sleepless nights because I’m concerned about getting it right and not appropriating someone else’s lived experiences for my writing.

    So while I’m free and easy with the things that are unique to my character, there’s definitely been a level of research about India and Hinduism that, much as I might not enjoy research, hasn’t really been optional!

    • I’m interested to hear what kinds of things you ended up chatting about. As a white cis woman I do worry about writing from the pov of other cultures/sexualities etc, but part of me also feels bound to try. There’s a book I’ve been wanting to write for ages about a friend who’s Muslim, but I always hold back because I’m wary of stepping into a minefield.

      That said, I think the fact that you care enough to put the work in is half the battle 🙂

  3. Cat Lumb

    Interesting post – esp because I also hate doing research!

    Having read Magnificent Joe I have to admit that I didn’t really need anything more than Wheatley gave me on the character. Not knowing much about those with learning difficulties probably doesn’t help me judge this from an informed POV, however I did think Joe was a little more adept at adapting to circumstances than I would expect.
    At the end of the day, Joe is a character and his actions had to run with the plot. He doesn’t appear as often as I would have thought, being the title character, and his cameos are usually pretty short. But I didn’t feel he was badly represented or there was anything particularly off about his character.

    Still, research is an important aspect of writing and there is some responsibility on the author’s part to ensure some accuracy despite the fictional approach to story telling. It’s a good discussion to have and certainly something we, as writers, need to keep in mind when writing.

    Great post, Cat

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