31 May

Even when writing about subjects that they know well,  most authors will have to undertake research and gather facts to make their writing more accurate or realistic.

For writers of historical fiction, for example, it may take months or even years of research for them to depict what people wore and ate,  how they worked, where they lived and the norms of everyday life in bygone times.

In my case, my work in progress is a crime novel. As I don't come from a police background, I've had to do a lot of research on procedures, methods of working and police jargon. 

I've also delved into the darkest aspects of humanity. My 'light' bedside reading has included books with titles like 'Inside the Criminal Mind,' and 'Notorious Serial Killers.' However, most of my research is conducted online. 

Although this has great benefits in terms of the instant accessiblity of countless subjects, I had the uncomfortable thought a while back, that if someone looked at my browsing history, they would assume I had some distinctly nefarious activities in mind.  My recent searches have included the following questions:

What is the best knife for inflicting a fatal stab wound?

How do you render someone unconscious through throttling?

What does a body look like 24 hours after death?

Fortunately, my husband doesn't have a suspicous nature!

The renowned crime novellist, Val McDermid said on Twitter a couple of years ago that her search history was so questionable that she wouldn't be surprised to find Special Branch on her doorstep one day.

However, the real dangers of research are not that you may face imminent arrest for potential criminal activity.  The actual risks for an author are twofold.

Firstly, instead of spending time  writing your novel you can easily fall into the rabbit hole of research. Nearly every author I know has fallen into this trap at one time or another. You can spend hours, weeks and months going from one fascinating website to another, discovering new and interesting facts about your area of interest. Another motivating factor can be 'imposter syndrome'  - believing that we don't know enough about a subject to write about it - which can lead authors to carry out unnecessarily extensive research on a subject. Unfortunately, the majority of what you read, though interesting, will have no relevance to the novel you are planning to write.

One solution to this is to set yourself definite parameters on what you are researching. Typing a specific question like, 'What did working class Londoners typically eat during WW2?', will yield more relevant information than just asking about food in wartime.  It is also worth setting  limits on how much time you spend on research.

The second danger with research is that there is a huge temptation to show it off in your novel. There is a fine line between adding enough information for the reader to feel that they believe in   the story and dropping an information dump that detracts from the action. This is where ruthless self-editing is required.

However, before we all beat ourselves up for spending too much time reading around the subject it's worth remembering that this is an inevitable consequence of being a writer. As Samuel Johnson once wrote '“The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write: a man will turn over half a library to make one book.'

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