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Weaving your research into a novel

In Ian McEwan’s The Children Act, he famously describes his character, a high court judge, driving into Hexham with a clumsy inaccuracy that makes any Geordie instantly want to throw the book at the wall. Get your use of research wrong, and the spell that you’ve worked so hard to cast will break.

We’ve all read books where the writer is just a little too keen to let us know that they’ve been to the library. You see that sentence crop up on their Amazon page- ‘this book an information dump.’ If your novel is set in a futuristic dystopia, or in a magical school (*cough*) then there’s probably precious little research you need to be. Yes, the novel will need to have an ‘internal validity’. That is, for the setting to be geographically consistent with itself. Novels set in fantasy lands often have maps offered at the start, to serve this purpose. But for the Hilary Mantels and Sebastian Faulks of this world, a keen eye during the research is essential to make a novel in a historical setting work.

An advance outline of the plot is obviously going to help the author plan for this. Even if the main setting is exotic (Ian Fleming’s Bond novels spring to mind) for the purposes of the plot you are probably not going to have characters staying in them for the whole narrative. The protagonists’ journey will doubtless require them to move around, so an idea of the different settings used in the plot is required. Novels that I’ve researched have often been a blend of settings I am already familiar with, and one or two scenes that I am not. I’ve found Youtube videos, documentaries, and even Google Maps strikingly useful in navigating my character around each setting. Archive visits, and visits to museums can help as well. There is nothing like being in the actual setting to give us a nuanced sense of its atmosphere. We have to be careful to not give the reader a sense of the place as people know it through research, but instead offer a sense of what it is really like.

So what is it that gives a novel a ring of authenticity? For my money, it’s the author, either using the third person, or through a character in the first person, picking out something about the scene that only their narrator would notice. Anyone can right a clichéd version of London (bustling, sooty, portly rich men in business suits) but what would your narrator really notice? Would they scan over the man picking a baguette out of a bin? Or if it is a particularly upmarket character, would they instead be drawn to the quality of the tassels in their upmarket hotel suite? Every setting has infinite layers that can be picked out. It isn’t just the character, but also their mood and place in the plot that might dictate this. In American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis’ psychopathic protagonist Patrick Bateman lists the designer for every item another character is wearing as soon as he sees them. We thus have an insight into Bateman as a character and the opulent world they live in at once.

The details the character will note will not only give the novel authenticity, but cut to the core of your character. If you are being super-smart, the characters observations may even chime with the overall message that you want your novel to have. A great example is Jo Baker’s Longbourne– a novel which uses the setting of Pride and Prejudice to reimagine the story from the perspective of the servants. Fans of ‘the era’ doubtless read the novel for the setting, and as a result of the meticulous research believe that the setting conveys as authentic. But the life of the staff ‘below stairs’ in this novel is one of blood-soiled petticoats, heavy waiter pails and perpetual scrubbing. The prose offers a stinging sense of chapped hands, and fingers worked to the bone. The novel itself seems to relay the message that in fact the characters we know and love in Austen’s world were waited on hand and foot by people who were exhausted, with precious little time to tend to their own emotional needs. But Jo Baker gets the balance between inserting research and allowing the plot to move along just right. The historical details are used only when they serve the plot or, in the second instance, when they help with the characterisation. No information is dumped in the novel that does not add to the plot or the essential characterisation, and this is perhaps key.

The art of using research to add to characterisation can be a difficult one to get right. It may well, for instance, help the characterisation if we get to have a scene inside a characters bedroom and see what they have on the wall, if they are tidy or messy. But we don’t want to just describe this setting for no purpose. We have to find a way to add these details into the moving plot. There are in my experience many ‘linking’ scenes in novels, in which conversations that move the plot along need to take place. I would having these conversations in settings which will somehow add to our insight into a character. If some of your research, or workshopping about a character can be used there, then great.

This is an issue worth getting right. Have you ever been turned off a book by a research flaw or too much information?

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