Thursday, 22 September 2011

In the Name of Research

Maeve Binchy, oft described as the mother of chick-lit, bases her writing in her native Ireland and her work is distinguished by the depth of her understanding of the social structure of small Irish communities. It raises the question, however, of how effectively we can base our own novels in settings where we do not have firsthand experience.
I use a range of settings in my work, but they are always places I have stayed, if only for a holiday. Indeed,in the past, I have frequently booked family holidays to places off most people’s radar with the express intent of doing research. Of course, this was never declared as an overt motive and my then teenage daughter’s protestations about the obscurity of destinations chosen were, mercifully, always overridden by the end result.
For my part, I would not feel confident relying purely on the internet to research settings as I feel it cannot possibly give the same level of insight to the nuances of a society, or indeed replicate one’s own unique angle of perception.
Research is essential if we want to give our work teeth. There will always be readers who are versed in the topic under discussion and one has to be careful to ensure accuracy.
So how far would we go? There are times when we all have to step out of our comfort zone in the name of research.
For example Joanna Trollope, now a refined, sixty something grandmother, describes how she donned black jeans and dark glasses to go night clubbing in London. That takes courage. She must have stood out like a sore thumb and she tells how she attracted much attention as she lurked with her notepad. It was a worthwhile pursuit, however, and her great observational skills ensured the authenticity of her novel ‘Friday Nights’.
So what is the most uncomfortable thing I have done in the name of research? That’s easy. Whilst writing the Path of Innocence, I had a scene when the hero visited his mother’s grave, but I needed to check the length of time required for soil to settle before a headstone can be laid. I walked up and down the street outside our local funeral parlour many times before I finally found the moment and plucked the courage to walk inside. Even as I walked through the door, I agonized over how to make the initial approach. Should I be bright and breezy? Would that be considered disrespectful of the setting? And I admit the first few moments were tricky. However, once I had convinced the undertaker of my authenticity, he went into raptures and there was no holding him back. The result: I left with reams of information on graves, far more than I needed, and my scene was sorted.
We have to ensure we do research, no matter how uncomfortable it may be at times; otherwise it is a disservice to our readers and we should not fool ourselves that inaccuracies will escape their collective radar.


  1. Megan I have often heard authors say that once the 'subject/person' realises they really want to know something about their work or interests, they personal is only too happy to talk. And, like you, they come away with far more than they expected.
    I can't remember who said so, but she received so much info she got two more books of that one research session :-)

  2. I would have been nervous about entering the funeral parlour, too. Congrats for having the nerve to get the research done. Sounds like it really paid off.