Research Pitfalls and Pleasure

I have always found researching the back ground for my stories to be the greatest fun. But it is not all joy. Worse, it can be counter-productive.

As this year is on the brink of turning, I have been taking stock of my writing habits and also my output. Well, a little. Not the full audit, you understand. Just a gentle canter through those things that I have done, and those that I have left undone. And why.

And the reason, I fear, is often Research.

So I thought some people might be interested in my conclusions on research, its pitfalls and pleasures.

Pitfall 1  Getting Lost in Research

This became a real problem for me when I started writing my first historical novel. The inspiration came from stories my mother told me. Some changed over time. So, OK, she was an unreliable narrator. Aren’t we all, sometimes? I could check details. God bless the Internet.

Not a bit of it. Devil take the Internet. It has made some sorts of research just too easy.

I ended up checking train timetables, the weather, even the phases of the moon on certain dates on which my characters did stuff.

Even worse, the more I knew about the real people and events of the time, the more they got in the way of what my own characters needed to do. I was boxing myself in with other people’s reality AND using it as a distraction to get away from difficult places in the book. What I needed was clear water between my research and starting to write that book again.

Pitfall 2  Crowding Out

Allied to this, is the point at which historical people somehow get hold of you. But their choices are already made and action taken. You can’t free your imagination to go off on the sort of What Ifs that make up a novel.

And anyway, you have to respect their integrity, especially when they’re members of your own family.  Emma Darwin is really good on this aspect in her lovely This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin. (There were places where I read it with my heart in my mouth. I knew that my novel, was borrowing some of my mother’s memories and opinions. But it wasn’t, couldn’t be, about her.)

Also, I remembered once taking a journey with a writer, a history nut, who was working on an historical adventure story. The real events they recounted were new to me and fantastically exciting. The story had everything: power struggles, family feuds, stolen inheritance, a child heir who disappears…

But this was real life, with all its randomness and longueurs. It had drama but the writer had to decide where was the climax, where the resolution. Over the course of the best part of a hundred miles I listened to the issues, the politics, the finances, the warring characters. And I kept asking the same thing. “So what’s your story?”

Pitfall 3 Knowing Too Much

The self help books for aspiring creative writers often tell you to “write what you know”. The theory  behind this is that it’s difficult enough to keep your plot and characters on track without venturing into worlds and practices about which you know zero.

The first flurry of chick lit books, for instance, was solid grounded in the lived experience of metropolitan young single women who worked hard, played hard and fell over their own feet a lot. No research necessary, you may think. The writers were doing exactly that.

Except, quite a lot of them weren’t. They were watching other people do it.

I once had tea with two writers, one still living life in the chick lit zone, one now, in Bridget Jones’s immortal phrase a Smug Married with Kids. The (rather older) Smug Married was happily imagining her way through wine-soaked partying with a BFF and adding some seriously funny dating disasters.

The Zoner had given up and turned to crime. “I know too much about metropolitan dating,” she said. “It’s  dreary. I fall asleep just thinking about it.”

The Pleasure:  Satisfying Your Curiosity

Research is one of the greatest pleasures of the human mind. I love it. And this is where it can really be inspiring for the novelist, when it starts the imagination wondering about something new.

Recently, for instance, The wonderful London Inheritance blog produced a piece on the London-Portsmouth Semaphore Chain. By 1820, the very best horse and rider could bring a message from the main naval dockyard at Portsmouth to London was in 5 hours. (The average, of course, was a lot longer.) So the Admiralty set up a chain of more than a dozen semaphore towers, which could transmit a message in minutes.

One tower remains. The Landmark Trust have restored it. You can holiday there. (But first read the London Inheritance Blog; it’s brilliant.)

Now I am a Georgette Heyer nut. Recently I re-read The Toll Gate, which is a cracking whodunnit, quite apart from a Regency delight and a very sweet love story. That Semaphore Tower called to me. Each semaphore tower was manned by a retired naval lieutenant – clearly a disappointing end to his shipboard career. Why would he take the job? How would he feel?  And what were the opportunities?

In The Count of Monte Cristo, the Count suborns a semaphore operator as part of his plot to wreak vengeance on his enemies. Could one have done something similar in England?  I am starting to hear a lonely naval officer with nothing to live for…

The French invented the semaphore chain, incidentally. The Chappe brothers set it up in 1792, just in time for the French Revolution. Successor regimes extended it so that it covered the whole country and messages, even from distant Marseilles could reach Paris in just a few hours.

Well, that was grand. But I’ve been trawling through the Internet for several hours, have learned a lot but not enough, not enough, and found a place where I would really like to spend a holiday. Will that lonely lieutenant take root in my imagination? Time will have to tell.

Pitfall 3 The Time Suck

This is the Killer one. You end up researching when you should be writing.

Pitfall 4 Silencing the Imagination

You fill your mind (and book) with stuff that pleases you but your characters don’t give a hoot about. Or, sometimes, that they couldn’t possibly know, though with hindsight you do, of course, you clever author.

You lose the will to fly free and see where the characters take you. Instead you want to burrow and keep on burrowing. And the caves just get narrower and narrower.


Research carefully. You may be doing it a long time.

Sophie Weston Author


6 thoughts on “Research Pitfalls and Pleasure

  1. Jan Jones

    Agree with all this, but oh, the utter joy of looking up moon phases in 1817 and discovering that there was a full moon ON THE EXACT DAY your h & h are fleeing London for the country…

    1. Sophie Post author

      Oh Jan, you speak truth. Nothing beats the feeling when history does the right thing by you!

  2. Joanna

    Oh dear. Rabbit holes I have gone down… How true, how true.

    And then last night, like Jan, I found myself researching. My character A needed to know when something happened. She questioned character B who couldn’t remember the exact time. “Was it dark?” character A asked. Cue researching author furiously checking when it got dark in that location at that time of year. And lo! like Jan, my guess had been right. I’d said “about seven” and yes, twilight ended in that location about seven. Phew. But after that, I did close the research book and back to the edits.

  3. Sophie Post author

    I have done exactly that more than once.

    Actually it can change the whole plot. I once found that the arrival of the dark was too early, and they wouldn’t have had time to eat first, as in my existing ms. And so the heroine’s stomach rumbled at the wrong moment and gave their hiding place away and we were off on a new tack… Added nearly ten thousand words, if I remember correctly.

  4. Liz Fielding

    There’s the procrastination time-suck – the pleasures of pinterest! – but then there’s the fact that Big Brother (aka Facebook) is watching you and you get the weirdest adverts in your timeline!

    1. Sophie Post author

      My Facebook timeline is a source of endless fascination to me. There’s a “chef”, clearly a professional, who produces the most disgusting-looking, not to say unhealthy, food in stomach-turning videos. Watch them through to the end every time.

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