Recently I have been reading Ian Rankin’s critically acclaimed book A Heart Full of Headstones. It has taught me to be wary of gushing praise from other authors of the same genre, but that’s a totally different matter – suffice to say for a Rebus fan it was more uncomfortable than for a writer of crime fiction.
It began to be a bit supicious that something ‘might be up’ as I read it. Looking Rankin up on YouTube to see what he might say I left the video chuntering on, upon the end of which Youtube provided me with another Rankin interview from a few years ago and he strayed onto territory that crossed into my/our world as well as his own.
The thorny issue of research.
For the book he was talking about he referred to having spent months digging into the nitty gritty of haemophilia, only to find that when he wrote about it in his book it took up just less than half a page, at which point he suggested that authors should only do their research after their second draft.
Obviously non fiction relies heavily on research so it is a different way of looking at it, but maybe for that reason I can have some thoughts that might have some sort of resonance.
We attended a talk by Elly Griffiths a few years ago, she was happily suggesting she does NO research for her books, plus only one draft (gosh she must have a devoted editor). Research comes in all shapes and sizes and even asking your archaeologist husband a few questions that wouldn’t be normal marital fare might be considered by most of us to be a form of research, but of course she knows what she makes up as a storyteller and what she knows by other means.
Research. The underbelly of my daily world. Not just the books, but also the ‘day job’. The idea of using research just to parrot facts is a source of concern. For the books I have worked on, four have had a heavy reliance on deep research, two in print and two still in prep. For the history of lichenology in Jersey in The Lichens of Jersey it took multiple times of reading the same things before the penny dropped over some of the connections that started to unearth the links that made the story come more alive.
The first time you research a topic you are looking for facts.
The second time you research a topic you are looking for why the facts are how they are as they are.
The next time you research a topic you are looking for how the facts link together and to build up connections between them.
Only after several runs through do the facts sing a song you want to play.
Famously the best actors have a massive sub story for their characters. They don’t use much of the content for these little cameos, but by understanding them they can make them believable and real to the audience.
Facts are like characters in a play. If you can’t understand them and their back story, then when you write about them, they have nothing to say, no song to sing and the notes fall flat and boring in the hearts and minds of the reader.
Research on topics needs to be done several times. Accompanied by a curious spirit. The curious spirit is vital, as is giving it good and full attention. Not to the detail, but to the characterisation. Sometimes an entire bookshelf needs only half a paragraph, but a comprehending one. It was so odd to hear the usually profound Ian Rankin try to avoid spending what has to have been valuable time.
Or am I biaised?