54. Research: the word that brings me out in a cold sweat

IN the long, hot summer of 1976 I remember being incarcerated in my bedroom, swotting up on maths, geography, biology and history when I wanted to be out sipping illegal beers in the nearby park.

It was O level year (something I believe they call GCSE’s now) and an experience like that as a 16-year-old can scar you for life.

Perhaps that is why the very word ‘research’ sends a shiver down my spine. It feels like I’m turning back the clock and becoming mired in a world of facts and stats.

Some novelists pride themselves on research. Peter James is an absolutely stickler for it, as my recent interviews with the great man show. I’m afraid I am not as brave as Peter James, though.

I have no wish to become nailed inside a coffin, or bungy jump off a high bridge, or jump out of a plane with just a parachute strapped to my back, or even play pass the parcel with venomous snakes. The idea of entering some drug dealer’s den and engaging local gangsters in conversation about their lives fills me with dread.

Meanwhile sitting in a library and swotting up on a given subject makes me feel like I’ve been transported back to those schooldays again, like Michael J Fox in the 2016 equivalent of the DeLorean. To be honest, I just want to sit down and write, get my feelings out onto the page and let my imagination flow until I come up with a really good page-turner without too much stress and worry.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. At some stage or other you are bound to come across a little speed bump where you want to introduce a certain element to the story and realise: “B***er, I know absolutely nothing about this”.

What happens then? You either ignore it and change the plot completely to fit in with what you do know or you bite the bullet, take yourself off to the local library and try to learn what you can about the subject.

Peter told me: “When I’m writing a book I like to feel I’m learning something, too.” Which is all fine and dandy, I agree, but at times it actually distracts from the writing.

This is a man who can churn out two or three novels a year while my grand total is one and a quarter in the best part of five years.

The trouble is that once you start learning about the subject you are researching it is difficult to know when to stop. Then there is a tendency to feel that because you have taken the time and trouble to learn it all, you need to shoehorn all that knowledge into the novel, which can detract from the overall plot.

That is why I was so glad to come across this article from one of my favourite crime writers Mark Billingham. His ethos, and one I will use as my mantra from now on, is “We are writing fiction. The very word means making stuff up”. In other words, you don’t have to be unfailingly accurate to write a good story and, actually, too many facts can detract from a terrific tale.

Here’s Mark’s piece… worth a read.


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