How far would you go in your pursuit of research?

One of the perks of being a writer is the research you often have to do for the authenticity of your story, characters, setting etc.  

While writing my novels I’ve learnt about many things.

Roof tiling, computer hacking, being in jail, various mental illnesses and sex shops, to name a few.

Information I’ll probably never need in my own life (most of it, anyway) but interesting, nonetheless.

Going All Out

But I’m a wimp compared to some writers.

Those who go all out to experience themselves what their characters are going through.

Australian-Canadian crime writer Tara Moss is known for her in-depth research.

This includes shooting firearms, being set on fire, flying with the RAAF and earning a certificate as a private investigator.

In a recent interview she discussed her experience of being choked unconscious by Ultimate Fighter ‘Big’ John McCarthy.

While I can’t see myself going to those extremes (a paper cut is enough to make me take to my bed) I agree that in these days of enhanced reader knowledge and sophistication it’s important to get your facts right.

And with sites like Google Earth you can write a book set in a place you’ve never been to and make it sound pretty authentic.

How Far Would You Go?

Australian author Nick Earls has a unique approach.

In his book of short stories Welcome to Normal, he did extensive research on the town called Normal in the USA by means of Google Earth.

Literally trawling the streets from the comfort of his office.

And he did the same for Andalucia in Spain, where another of the stories, The Heart of Robert The Bruce, takes place.

He does such an expert job of description and creating ambience, that unless you knew otherwise, you’d assume he’d been there himself.

He described his research process in this post.

But amazing as it is to be able to do this, it’s still armchair travel.

Nothing beats visiting a place yourself if you’re going to write about it.

You can’t experience smells, sounds and atmosphere on Google Earth.

The pungent aroma of the markets, the blare of the traffic, the sweltering heat, the tension of the crowds.

You can imagine them, or ask other people who’ve been there, and maybe you’ll get it right.

But you won’t have the edge, the element of surprise and discovery.

Your own feel and impressions of a place that are unique to you and which give the setting flavour and originality.

A great reason, if you need one, to travel.

I’m going to set my next book on a remote South Pacific island...

Can you top Tara Moss for 'out there' research?  

Any suggestions for my South Pacific island?

How far would you go?

  • Hi Robin,

    An Interesting topic. Like most writers, I do research, but the extremes described in your post reminds me of the Dustin Hoffman, Laurence Olivier story.

    During the filming of “Marathon Man” there was a scene where Hoffman’s character didn’t sleep for a few days, so Hoffman decided not to sleep for a few days before shooting that scene. Olivier’s reply to that? “My dear boy, why don’t you trying acting?”

    Why not try writing?

    In the end, it’s whatever works best for the writer. Although their approach to acting might have differed, few could argue that Dustin Hoffman isn’t a great actor, as was Laurence Olivier.

    • HI Alan
      I can hear just Laurence Olivier saying that! I think imagination is often as effective as research. I remember reading about an interview with crime writer Ian Rankin, in which he said he often receives compliments from police on getting his facts right – but he never does any research. He just makes it all up.

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