“If you give me six lines written by the most honest man, I will find something in them to hang him.”
- Attributed to Cardinal Richelieu, 1585-1642
All the writers I know LOVE research. The investigative process is, in many ways, the opposite of the writing process. You start at a given point, a specific quest, and rapidly diverge in sundry directions, accumulating data as you go, until you have a veritable mountain of facts, figures and trivia. It’s then you realize you will have to throw away most of this before writing your novel. If you don’t, then you are writing a documentary or scientific paper, not a thriller.
Why do we do research? Well, it is an unwritten law that an author of fiction should endeavor to state and use the facts correctly. Yes, “poetic license” is allowed, to a degree (you can’t re-define Gravity, for example, without a very good reason). So that means researching AND VERIFYING your facts. Of the two actions just mentioned, mistakes, errors or what-have-you that creep into novels are often caused by authors who don’t take the time to double-check the data they find. The classic newspaper-reporter adage of not publishing until you have at least two independent sources that agree is definitely the rule to follow.
This is especially true of the use of the Internet as a research tool. It has become too easy to switch on your PC, fire-up Google, type in a keyword and take the results that are returned as gospel. Whilst I am wholeheartedly in support of the Internet (after all I am old enough to remember when we called it Arpanet!), I also know just how easy it is for any Tom, Dick or Whoseit with an axe to grind or a particular slant on a given subject to publish their views instantly worldwide and have these taken as fact.
Worse, we have become conditioned to the “sound-bite” philosophy; we want our facts in easily digestible chunks – brief and succulent. If you wish to obtain the maximum benefit from your research effort, arm yourself with patience and don’t accept the first thing that comes along. Be prepared to print-out and study (note I did not say read) a two hundred page scientific paper, for example, in search of a minor fact. Once you have it, check it against other sources. The devil is in the detail!
Remember also that when you have your facts, it behoves you to utilize them not just repeat them. You are not WikiThriller. Facts should help the storyline, they must contribute to the tale significantly, albeit as colouring of the backdrop against which your characters move and events occur, or as intrinsic parts of the development of the story in itself.
To give you an idea of what I mean, in the context of 2012 I’ll present you with three examples:
The EMP strike:
Once I had the technical details (including a manual) of the Vircator mechanism, I needed to calculate where it had to be in order to produce the effect I wanted in the story.
As you can see from the diagram on the left, I started out with a map of North America, did some calculations based on the research material I had accumulated (a small part of which can be seen in the right-hand margin) and deduced the radius of the “blast”, then worked this back to the Giga-Watts needed. In all, the result of this was a little over 1,300 words in the book. The research process and subsequent calculations took me the better part of two weeks!
This is an example of Direct Application. This means the research, once complete, will give a specific, well defined result which you will extrapolate to your storyline, often becoming the motor for some event in the tale.
This was a wonderful instance of facts and figures gone mad. I started with the geological process required. Here I had a slight advantage because, before joining the mad world of Management Consultancy, I was studying to be a Geologist! I knew about the Cumbre Vieja situation and its possible consequences (yes, this IS a real, tangible threat to the Western Atlantic Seaboard as well as southern Europe and West Africa, and there is no viable solution - scary isn't it? It's not a question ). I needed to know more though to make the birth and effects of the wave a frightening experience for the reader. Before I went any further, I did a “guesstimate” of casualties and came up with a ball-park figure of 10 million. I was wrong!
Next I made out a list of what I needed to know: Wave Dynamics; Costal Slippage; Variable wave speed, depth and height; Effects on shipping; Topological Surveys for the island chains in mid-Atlantic as well as the Eastern U.S. and Northern Venezuela; Population Densities for all affected areas; ...and a long etc. In the end, this daunting list took me over three months to research and accounted for over 2000 pages of notes and reports and four documentary DVDs about Tsunamis. However, the key piece of synthesized information was the chart on the right. This was when I found out that my “guesstimate” was out by a factor of 10! It also gave me the timeline for the Mega-tsunami event.
At this point, I had too much material and was in danger of writing a documentary, so I needed to adopt an approach regarding how I was going to use this information to keepthe novel fast-paced and interesting for the reader. I decided I was going to split the event into three clear segments, each from a different perspective (Point of View – see the Research Tip on this subject). I would start off with a God’s Eyes view of the initial cause of the Tsunami, then move to a view of the effects as seen from how the Tsunami affected the lives of a group of unrelated individuals, and finally treating the Tsunami itself as though it were an animate creature devouring all in its path.
This is an example of Indirect Application. This means the results of the research will be a foundation for the events you will describe and provide facts to support your graphic descriptions, but will not be a single set of facts in and as of itself (i.e. nowhere do I write about the actual wave speed, the exact height of the land or the effect encountering shallow water has on the wave dynamics - but I do make reference to these facts in the narrative).
The Knutsford Clinic rescue:
In order to write about this event as realistically as possible, and by that I also mean Grey had to do a McGyver and use easily-available devices, it was essential I had a clear picture in my mind of the Clinic. Fortunately I knew the Knutsford area reasonably well, and took advantage of a brief trip to the U.K. in 2007 to make sure my knowledge was still relevant. I also had the advantage of having been a Management Consultant. Over the course of several millennia (or at least that’s how it feels) I have been involved in various projects for the private and public medical industry, so I had a reasonable idea of what needed to be present in a small, private clinic. My specialty, Information Technology Security and Cyberwarfare, also gave me a good understanding of physical security measures and security systems. What did the clinic need in the way of security? Basically it needed to keep out unwanted visitors (drug-users seeking supplies, paparazzi etc.) whilst protecting the privacy of their guests/patients. I analysed the resultant measures and took advantage of the weaknesses I found in the way I designed the rescue. This gave me the How and What With. But I still needed to “get a feel” for the building itself, the Where. (Yes I know it sounds like Cluedo).
So one lazy summer afternoon, whilst enjoying a great cup of coffee as I sat at an outdoor, beachfront cafeteria (ah! the trials and tribulations of writing!), I took out a notepad (ALWAYS have one with you) and sketched out the clinic and its grounds. This gave me a basic rectangular shape for the building itself. Boring! I needed blind spots for the rescue to work. So I flipped the sheet and designed the layout of all of the floors, including areas (the basement) NOT mentioned in the novel! Why? Because at the time of sketching, I wanted to work on the rescue plan in greater detail and I was not 100% certain exactly which areas I would need to use in the resultant narrative. Also, with a schema for the whole building, I knew where staircases, lifts etc. had to be, and why. This sketch did evolve slightly before writing the appropriate chapters in the novel; if you look closely you can see the elevators (the boxes with X) don’t go anywhere!
Thus, when I moved Grey around the building, his encounters, and lack of them, were based firmly on lines-of-sight, focal points, distraction points etc. and therefore coherent; plus I knew exactly where the object of the rescue would be held, even down to the room number.
Incidentally, you can see why I use a keyboard for writing; if I tried to write a novel by hand, I’d still be deciphering the first chapter!
This is an example of Derived Research. You start with a need (the Clinic in this case). You could use an existing building’s floor plan (then you would have Direct Application research) but you would be limited in where and how your characters and the storyline can move. So you go bespoke. Careful though! For authenticity, design your building first with the events in broad brush-stokes in mind, then break-in, NOT the other way round – remember buildings are never designed to be broken into, just the opposite in fact.
But knowing the way you use your research is only half the battle (the latter half, in fact). How do you decide WHAT to research in the first place?
The Golden Rules, according to my experience, are:
1) If it’s a fact, you either know it (then you need to check your knowledge is up to date) or research it.
2) Check everything, especially details, at two distinct sources. Using Internet this can be more difficult than it appears because people replicate stuff from other pages with free abandon, often without citing the source. Be wary of your sources really being the same in origin.
3) I know this one’s going to hurt. The Internet is NOT the only research source! I subscribe to a vast array of magazines and other periodicals, and yet, when needing information about a specific item, I often search out other specialist magazines dealing with that subject in particular. Also read books on the subject; watch documentaries; etc (see also 6 below).
4) Jot things down on your notepad as they catch your fancy, if you can see, even on a misty, distant horizon, their potential in a story (and not necessarily the one you are working on at that moment!).
5) Talk to people! (What? Did he say ask questions?) I have found that, if you are honest and open about why you need to know something, people will respond positively 95% of the time. Write or e-mail companies, ask for their product catalogues (that way, for example, you can see how a P90 machine gun works if you never have the opportunity to fire one!). And, if you have written yourself into a corner, someone specialized in the subject matter in hand may find it fun to devise a solution for you. (Never forget to acknowledge their assistance though in your published book).
6) Blogs! Yes, other people’s Blogs! What’s it like to have flown on Concorde? Need it for your novel but never done it? Too late now! But, if you search diligently enough you may find a great, first-person perspective experience documented in someone’s blog. Care, stealing Intellectual Property is a crime. So either use with their written permission (and your Acknowledgement) or synthesize (Indirect Application).
7) Define your Keywords. This is a classic technique that has been around for many, many years. In numerous fields of endeavor, people do not have the time to fully read all the documentation written and published on a given subject. This is especially true in fields such as Medicine. So when a paper is published, it will contain a leading paragraph (usually in Italics) which provides a summary of the whole paper. It will also provide keywords for future searches. You can use the same principle.
Let’s look at a real example: for 2012 I needed to know about Egyptian Pyramids. If I type this in on Google (in English) I get an astounding, and totally unmanageable, 755,000 responses. If I type this in Spanish, there’s an additional 207,000. So I refine my search by adding Giza, Gizeh, Khufu and Cheops (using the + sign and the - sign to exclude a potential keyword). Now I have “only” 24,200. Let’s add “air shafts” (note the use of quotes will force this exact combination to be searched and not air and shafts separately) – now I have just 881 references. That’s a good couple of day’s work checking on all of these, but if the facts you are after are important to your story, then it will be worth the effort. As an aside, I am a fan of Google Chrome (having used it from the good ol' Beta days, and particularly like the multi-tab feature when I’m researching (you get another Tab on the same page by CTRL + link when you click). It’s so easy, and efficient, to open 20 pages and just flip between them, searching for your facts and cross checking. I know other browsers now have this feature, so use it please. It will save you considerable time. Use of the Ctrl + F (Find) feature also helps track down references with alacrity.
8) Take notes! Not just copy piecemeal the material you find, or even print out sections of documents. Write your own summaries, in your own words. This has two major advantages: it helps you synthesize and it will help you remember the interesting stuff you come across. Then you can use the piecemeal copies to fill out your needs if required.
9) Here’s a curious one: Experience it yourself! Some examples: Firearms – I've already mentioned this before. Most people in Europe have not held, let alone fired, a gun in their lives (perhaps, depending upon countries, with the exception of Military Service). If you need to write about them, then you could purchase a replica model (airsoft) and, as their dimensions and basic mechanisms are similar (weight is usually way off though), you will get a feel for the handling. Shooting one, however, does not give you the same sensations. So contact a gun club, find someone who has the weapon, and you may get lucky and have a chance to range-fire the real thing. I did this once with the American M16 rifle; it sounded and recoiled far differently to what I expected. Don’t limit your personal experiences to firearms though. Need to know what it feels like to ride in a Formula 1? – it can be done! How about riding in a jet fighter? – can also be done, but it’s a little more expensive. Try 5 or 6 above for this one. As you can see, research can also be great fun! - now you ask why writers love it so much - oh, Mr. Publisher, you wanted a novel?
10) Always, always have a clear idea what you need to know before you start researching (rule 1 above) and be careful not to lose sight of that objective. You will be surprised just how easily you can be distracted. One of my favorite phrases is from the actor Sir Michael Caine. He used to say this catch-phrase repeatedly in interviews and it sums up the dangers of untargeted research:
“Not a lot of people know this,…”
There’s also the famous saying “Curiosity killed the Cat!”...
... It also delayed the novel!
Finally, an Absolute Golden Rule about research:
Remember that whatever your research turns up, whatever you choose to use, it MUST ALWAYS help to carry the story forward or develop a character, and must maintain the Pace. Just imagine for a moment if Dan Brown had stopped to detail how every nook and cranny of the Capitol Building was constructed, what a boring book “The Lost Symbol” would have been!