Friday, 20 March 2015

Researching for research sake


Hands up if you've read The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.

Yep, me too and I loved it! I read it on a friend's recommendation way back when it first came out.

For reasons unknown to even myself, I was reading some reviews of The Da Vinci Code recently and was surprised by the number of people who were complaining about the 'half-truths' and 'inaccuracies' in the detail.

Hang on ... I thought The Da Vinci Code was a work of fiction. Am I wrong?

A number of reviewers also commented that Dan Brown's research went way over the top and that his use of this information throughout the book was a blatant attempt to show off, mostly adding nothing to the story.

Okay. I'll admit there were times during my reading of the book when I thought it got a bit long-winded, but I wasn't about to complain about it! Besides, you can't have it both ways, reviewers - it's either not factual enough or has too much. Which one?

Bottom line is that Dan Brown copped a bit of flack over the research (I understand that his wife Blythe did much of it).

When it comes to research, it's very difficult for a writer to know how much is enough, how much is too much.

I primarily write historical fiction; Torn and Inviolate were set during the Regency period. This, in itself has advantages and disadvantages.

The obvious advantage is that the Regency era has a surfeit of information, thanks to Napoleon, Wellington, poor old 'mad' King George III and, of course, the Battle of Waterloo.

Such an abundance of data has its disadvantages too. This is because there is so much research out there, every second person is an expert.

I encountered situations with my own writing where people complained that they felt my language wasn't authentic enough. Someone else complained that dogs didn't wear collars in those days. What the ...?

Firstly, dogs were wearing collars in ancient Egypt so it's fairly safe to say that they wore them in 1810.

With regard to the language, it's unlikely that anyone today could say for certain how people spoke back then. Sure, we know how people wrote; think Jane Austen, Walter Scott, et al.

But prose is very different than the spoken word. I tried to keep my characters' dialogue as authentic as I imagined it might be, but I also wanted them to speak like real people, albeit, real people of their time. I also wanted my characters to appeal to as wide an audience as possible - having them speak like Jane Austen characters would be limiting.

I did a lot of research into speech and words in particular. Check out my favourite Etymology Dictionary. This site can be fun and very interesting ... well, for me anyway!

So, back to the topic, where do we draw the line between adequate research and abject tedium? How do we give readers enough to make the story relevant and believable, without over burdening them facts, dates and figures?

Alright, there are three rules that I have applied in my own writing, and I'm very glad I did because I came close (perhaps that's an understatement) to weighing the story down with too much information.

1. Ask yourself if what you've written adds anything of value to the story. In other words, if you removed the section, would it take something away from the reader's experience? If the answer is no, then 'kill your darling' - that's writer-speak for getting rid of something that you absolutely love but know it has to go.

2. Consider consulting a manuscript assessor. An assessor can professionally review your manuscript for style, structure, characters and plot development. They won't necessarily be checking your facts for accuracy, but they can give you an idea of what works and what doesn't. Organisations like The Australian Writer's Centre or Writers Victoria can put you in touch with a well reputed assessor. Alternatively, hop onto google and do a search for manuscript assessors near you.

3. Engage a professional editor. I engaged a wonderful editor with the kind of background that would suit my particular novel. For example, as my books were set in Regency England, I wanted an editor who was very English, an older lady who spoke very correctly and understood the language of the time. What impressed me most about my editor, Jane, was that she had a quiet dignity that wouldn't have been out of place in my characters' time.

I guess the bottom line, when it comes to research, is to stay faithful to the outcome you're hoping to achieve. You're never going to please everyone, and you can only end up frustrating yourself in the attempt.

Whenever I'm asked about my research and how much I do, I always say that I do enough to satisfy myself, which is the same response I give when asked about my writing in general. Writing is a very lonely occupation, it doesn't pay well - for most of us - and it's very time consuming. We do it for love; in service of the story, the characters and the craft.

The research should be done for the same reason: in service of a good story!

Until next week, take a look at this website. PEN has been around for nearly one hundred years, and is a wonderful support and resource for writers around the world.

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