Monday, November 16, 2015

Beware Research!

Ian Rankin, the hugely successful Scottish crime writer, starts his Canadian book tour in Vancouver shortly. He was interviewed recently by The Globe and Mail about the top five habits that made him successful.

Some of them  struck a chord with me –  read a lot and read widely; follow where your story leads you – and others just wouldn't work for me. Write the story as fast as you can at first without bothering about detail would leave me in a total mess when it came to the second draft.

I don't feel I have to write a perfect first draft but I do have to feel that the story makes sense as I go along and if I change a character's motivation or have a development that would contradict what I've said before, I can't write comfortably till I've gone back and fixed it.

But the thing Ian mentioned that had me nodding as I read it was the point he made about research. Research, he said, could be a rabbit hole down which you can disappear for weeks at a time. It is  fraught with danger.

Research is certainly much more efficient since the Internet. You need some small piece of information, say, like finding out the precise date of a pop festival. You Google it, check it and get back to your writing. It saves hours that you would have spent consulting – well, I don't know exactly what. Old newspapers, perhaps?

But then you catch sight of something interesting on the page, so you have a look at that, and then you're led on to something after that... and before you know where you are, all the hours you saved not looking for old newspapers have vanished.

Where I will say it has helped me is when it comes to quotations. I never put a quotation in without checking it, however well I believe I know it. When I started writing that meant tracking it down, leafing through all the poetry books on my shelf, sometimes, and you know what happens when you leaf through poetry books, don't you? Yes, 'Oh goodness, it's lunch time.'

The most seductive form of research is talking to people who are experts in what you need to know. I'm always amazed that people are so ready to spend their time telling you the secrets of their trade and the conversations can go on for hours, even though it's probably giving you much more information than will ever appear in the book. But hey! You're actually talking to someone just like real working people do, not just sitting in a room by yourself staring at a screen.

Worst of all is researching in depth. It's probably  a subject that already interests you. You need a certain amount of background for your book, but you go on reading long after you've got what you need because it's fascinating. And that counts as work, doesn't it? And of course, while you're engaged in the serious business of researching you can't be expected actually to be getting on with the next chapter. This can go on for months. Procrastination and virtue, both at the same time – what's not to like?

So you have to discipline yourself to stop, if that book is ever to get finished. And that's the most important habit of all – just applying seat of pants to seat of chair and staying there till it's done.

And if you're anywhere near one of Ian's events do go along. He's very interesting and a really nice man.

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