Thursday, 6 January 2011

Research: procrastination, self-indulgence or necessity?

I had an epiphany on Wednesday morning, at 8.24, on the corner of Albert Road and Leopold Road. It’s a wonderful experience, when everything comes at once, and I floated the next few hundred yards swearing under my deep breaths as I examined this wonderful free gift of thought content.

One of the consequences of this is that my current novel now has a real world setting, in a real time, beginning around 1928. I can’t do anything about this; the epiphany has determined it, and it feels right. As I swayed back and forth on the commuter train a few minutes later my mind was gleefully listing all the things I would have to find out about.

This is a familiar high, resulting, I think, from years of academic research. It is a relief and a joy, at the start of a project, to know that before any of my own ideas or arguments can be expressed, there are at least ten papers and three books that must be read and scribbled on and plundered for their pithiest phrases.

Later it becomes an excuse; there’s always one more paper, one more reference, that might contain something really important, before I can attack the blank page. By then, of course, there are pages and pages of notes that must be read and scribbled on and plundered for their pithiest phrases…

Research can start to feel self-indulgent partly because it’s one of those things that is never really finished, but also because afterwards, when the argument has been formed and expressed, so much of it can appear redundant. I don’t think it always is, and perhaps research for creative purposes is different from that for argumentative ones. Immersing oneself in an era, a place or a place, and letting it rub off even if individual details are discarded, must be useful.

Last year I listened to Peter Carey talk about his new book Parrot and Olivier in America, admitting that in the end he didn’t use 90% of his research. An architect had painstakingly drawn up the plans of a house that the ‘real’ Olivier had lived in, and Carey didn’t even look at them while he wrote. But he visited similar places and the atmosphere infected him.

He’s not the only writer I’ve heard making this kind of admission, so I feel vindicated as I pore over websites uncovering obscure characters from the early twentieth century. Deep down I know that there must be a point where enough research turns into too much, but that point is still far away.

Last year I also listened to two successful authors of fiction declaring that they never did any research. It’s fiction, they said, you’re supposed to be making it up. They urged their audience of budding writers not to bother either. Perhaps they were lucky and were writing on subjects and in genres that didn’t require background information.

I certainly didn’t plan to write something that would mean precious writing time would be taken up with learning. My first novel required very little. But as I said, it’s the epiphany’s fault, and now I can’t wait to dive in, especially as my first port of call will be Leighton House Museum. I will tell you all about it next time.


  1. There is perhaps a similar process to landscape and nature writing; some people take copious notes, recording everything they see and hear and feel; others, like myself, hardly write at all, but spend hours, years even, absorbing what eventually takes form in words. It is all research of a sorts - time well spent.

    And what ever you do, when you go to the museum - go alone

  2. When working my task was to research and then fit the results into the procrustean bed of appropriate forms of makes you both thorough and inventive.
    Since retiring, I seem to have gone to the Mark school. Things take their own form.