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Fiction Writing and Research

15 January, 2010

Let me start with a story. A few weeks ago, I decided I was going to write a short story that included a fictionalised version of samurai. I sat down at my laptop and started researching samurai, making copious notes on their lifestyle and their beliefs and their equipment. My theory was simply that using real life details about samurai would make my fictionalised version ring truer. It was good theory, with one eventual flaw. I didn’t use a single piece of that research in the final short story.

With that story finished (at least the first draft), I decided it was time to think about another one. This particular story was going to be set in a fantasy version of Britain after the withdrawal of the Romans. As an archaeology student it’s a period that I studied, so the first thing I did was go downstairs and collect a pile of relevant books. Seven of them, in fact. They’re still sitting in that same pile on my windowsill. Seven books for a single short story. That seems like overkill, right? After all, I never used any of my research for the last short story, so maybe I won’t this time either.

When it comes to novels, I often suffer a similar problem. I do masses of research which ends up hardly being relevant at all. Alternatively, I do no research at all and just power through the first draft without it, making frequent mistakes along the way, mistakes that I don’t even notice. Somehow, I can’t seem to reach a happy medium. I like to think I’m good at research. I also like to think I’m pretty good at writing, but I just can’t seem to put the two together.

I still don’t have an answer to this conundrum and I’m not about to attempt to offer one here. However, with a new novel in the very earliest and most tentative of planning stages, research is something I’m thinking very hard about. If I manage to make any breakthroughs about this particular part of my process, I’ll be posting about them here.

In the meantime though, a few questions for my readers: if you’re a writer, how do you incorporate your research findings into your fiction? Or do you simply avoid research altogether? And if you’re a reader, do you appreciate good research when it finds its way into fiction? Or do you perhaps not even notice – are research errors far more obvious than good research?

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