How Much Research Is Enough?

‘How much is enough?’ was once a question on an internal audit examination paper asking what is sufficient evidence to form an accurate audit opinion. It’s also a question I overhear writers asking about research. The short answer is ‘it depends’ but that wouldn’t earn many exam marks so here is a longer answer:

If you stick with the old adage and ‘write about what you know’ then you may not need to do much research. My novel White Van Man is about a redundant banker who turns to freelance deliveries. I have worked in a bank, driven a white van and Mrs D worked for a national courier firm so my research needs were minimal. On the other hand, if you know little about your subject, you may need to do a lot of research ‘up front’ to make your story seem authentic and plausible. I recently felt inspired by a TV documentary to write a short story about Kalahari bush men hunting antelope. I’ve never been to Africa and all I knew about the bush men was contained in a 5 minute excerpt from that programme. I spent more time leafing through library books and scouring the Internet for that story than I did writing it! But when I read it to my writers’ circle, two members of the group who’d lived in Africa said it evoked wonderful memories for them and assumed I must’ve been there. Their comments made all that research worthwhile.

At this year’s Hay Festival, Ian Rankin told his audience that he did no research until after the first draft was written because that way he knew exactly what he needed to know and didn’t waste any time researching information he didn’t require.

Some writers research up front, some at the end, and some say they write until they reach a point where they need to know something and then research it. Personally, I don’t recommend this last approach because it can disrupt the flow of your work.

So, either you know what you know, or you can find out what you don’t know. But it’s not that simple! Some novels suffer from what I call over-research-syndrome. This occurs when an author, having dedicated so much time and effort on research, is determined to work it all into the novel come what may: The result can read like a text book rather than a piece of fiction. Which brings us neatly back to the question: How much is enough?

The reader needs to have sufficient confidence to believe the situation described in the novel is as real as it can be but not so much that they lose the plot. A few telling facts scattered here and there is usually enough to achieve this.

Perhaps the biggest danger is what you don’t know you don’t know. I once heard P D James tell of a reader who complained about one of her early novels describing a motorbike reversing down a lane. Apparently, motorbikes don’t reverse down lanes (although I’ve not researched this!).

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