Francesca Burgess explores the value and pitfalls of research

Write what you know. That’s good advice for someone just setting out as a writer and something most writers do, to some extent, their whole writing life. I’ve certainly rummaged through the events of my life for plots. For instance, one of the first short stories I ever had published called New Beginnings (which consequently ended up in the charity anthology Diamonds and Pearls) had a plot based on my experience of the family Easter.

I’m sure I’ll go on using things I’m familiar with in my fiction, but as endlessly fascinating as my life is (cough cough), there comes a time as a writer when you need to break out, delve into something a little different, something you don’t have experience of.

The first two novels I wrote were Young Adult, which brought its own problems. Yes, I was a teenager once and I remember it quite vividly. However, if I had one of my characters dressed in loons exclaiming, “Groovy!” I might find myself accused of being a tad out of date. Some of the research for this was first hand, watching and listening to my own teen children and their friends. Then there was ‘Yoof’ TV and other YA novels.

I know some writers find research tedious but I am both lucky, and unfortunate, in that I love it. I discovered my penchant for research thirty-six years ago during a module for my history degree. It involved studying an area of Kingston-upon-Thames. Wading through microfiche files full of census data and tithe maps turned out to be really quite thrilling as the history of the streets I’d walked emerged.

Microfiche files! Those were the days. Thank goodness for computers. Much of what I write now is contemporary, but it’s amazing how much research I still have to do. The time of a train journey somewhere, the geography of a town I can’t get to visit (I so love walking the streets on Google View!), it’s all there on the internet for the viewing public.

For my novels I’ve had to research things like tide tables, the effects of cannabis, prison sentences for GBH, the laws for divorce and tenancy agreements. When adapting short stories for abroad, among the areas I’ve checked are Christmas traditions, the climate at certain times of year and the school system. Three of my four novels have required research into hospital procedure for certain conditions (I seem to enjoy heaping medical emergencies on my characters!).

As I hinted earlier, loving the research is also a problem. It’s very, very easy to get carried away and forget to do the writing. And that’s the danger of it: you’ve got to know when to stop, not to research beyond what you need. Maybe the answer is to set the timer, give myself only so long to do it? I’ll have to try it and see if it works.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going for a walk around Whitstable on Street View…

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6 thoughts on “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW?

  1. I enjoyed reading this, Francesca, and admire your eye for detail and accuracy. I find research difficult, perhaps that’s why i read English and not History, but as you say research is important, and I must pay more attention to it. Thank you for a compelling argument emphasising its importance as a writer’s tool.

  2. I enjoyed this piece. I have to say I don’t enjoy research so I tend to skip and speed read, which means I probably miss a lot of important detail. You’ve shown the importance of getting it right so I must try harder to enjoy it more and then hopefully it will come more naturally to me.

  3. Your research has led you into some very interesting areas, hasn’t it, Francesca? I’m hopeless at it, probably one of the reasons I don’t write what I enjoy reading so much, historical novels. I remember being amazed at the amount of research done by Elizabeth Chadwick and the artifacts she brought along to an RNA Chapter Meeting I attended. Even if one doesn’t use everything it gives a ‘feel’. I guess, as is written on so many school reports, I ‘must try harder’.

    • Someone (must research that) said the fruits of research should, in a novel or short story, be as an ice-berg; only a small portion revealed leaving its bulk beneath the surface.

  4. Lovely post Francesca. It’s all in the detail. I’m amazed at the detail writers perceive, often
    missed by others around us. I suppose that’s the art of making a story from the tiniest things in life. As you say, the art lies in finding a balance between paying heed to the research without neglecting the word count.

  5. Thank you all for your comments. It’s interesting to hear how different writers view research. As you imply, moyalydia, so much of what is researched remains unseen. It’s often helpful to know the facts even if you don’t use them all as they can help to get you in the ‘zone’.

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