This may only be my second turn on the More than Writers blog, but I already feel we know each other well enough for me to make a writerly confession: I hate doing research. I know a lot of writers love it, but I find it tiresome. It’s strange really, as I’m a stickler for detail, and will search endlessly for the right word or cadence, but really I’m not that bothered about describing every last thing in the world I’ve created or re-imagined for my characters. I want it to come across as genuine, but I don’t want the interesting facts I’ve discovered to be distracting. If my reader is more intrigued by the authentic pearl buttons on my turn-of-the-century heroine’s delectable boots, instead of feeling her broken heart, I’ve definitely failed as a writer. Yet here and there, I have to admit, it might be the pointed detail used to show my heroine lost in looking at her own shoes that is a way into her broken heart. It’s a fine line to tread.
When I’m researching facts for a non-fiction book, that can be horribly boring, or it can be a great learning experience. Mostly I dread it because I know it’s going to take me off into the subject in more depth (and word count) than I honestly wanted to give it. Even worse, it’s going to be, more often than not, a collision course with my own ignorance.
I suppose my stubborn dislike comes from being so conscious of how little energy I have (I'm chronically ill), and also because I either want to get on with the story, or move on with what I want to say about the subject I have in mind. It could not possibly, of course, be laziness.
I recently completed a novel set during WW1 and made the mistake (we’ll call it an inspired device) of using real people as very minor characters. Because it is set in a specific time frame, there was a lot of research to do. I know I’ve probably made some mistakes, but hopefully nothing that will be an obstacle to the story. I found it was easy to become obsessed with being historically accurate. I even trawled meteorological records to the point where I started to feel that the weather was becoming a character in its own right.
The worst thing, of course, is when you have to change the plot arc because that historical person Colonel Ponsonby is talking to is actually on an entirely different continent at that point in time, and, sadly, long before they might have been communicating by email.
In the end I decided that I would not drive myself mad with historical accuracy, and take a leaf out of my real life heroine Jane Austen’s book, concentrating instead on perfecting the characters and the dialogue, which are, for me, what drives the story. I think that there is a very good reason why so many stories begin with, “Once upon a time,” rather than, “It was a stormy Tuesday night in mid-November of 1973.” The detail needs to serve the story, not the other way around. And if anyone ever points out errors to me, I hope I shall correct those that might waylay a reader, and dismiss those which are of no matter. In the end, you see, the great secret of fiction is that it is all made up; even the real bits.
Keren Dibbens-Wyatt is a disabled writer and artist with a passion for poetry, mysticism, story and colour. Her writing features regularly on spiritual blogs and in literary journals. Her full-length publications include Garden of God’s Heart and Whale Song: Choosing Life with Jonah. She lives in South East England and is mainly housebound by her illness. Image from Pixabay.