A former work colleague once confided in me his absolute loathing of Tim Winton. Somewhat startled, I asked why. Because he’s a fraud, I was told. Further questions revealed that the source of this fraud was the fact that in Cloudstreet Winton had represented a particular brand of truck as starting with a crank, when this was patent rubbish, as it had a starter motor of its own. He was straightfaced about it, although I’m still not sure, all these years later whether or not it was an elaborate attempt at having me on.
However, this did fix in me the importance in doing your research.
Today I took advantage of the Alumni benefits at my alma mater Latrobe University and got a Library card for the Borchardt Library. Apart from feeling deeply old at all the bright young things running around, I felt a real thrill walking amongst the Dewey Decimal-d ranks of a serious academic library. I took out books on Post-conflict Reconstruction and Ethnoarchaeology. I’ll be going back for more, on topics as diverse as Military Anthropology to 19th century submarine technology.
Although I must admit I find acquiring new knowledge a lof of fun in itself, the main reason I’m borrowing these doorstops is for the second draft, for excuses to not start are beginning to dry up.
I once went to see Louis de Berniers give a talk, in which he told us that to write Captain Corelli’s Mandolin he took a stack of research notes half a metre high into Italy, emerging with a four hundred pages manuscript draft. This was in the pre-internet age, but it’s a nice visual metaphor for how much research sometimes needs to go into a work to give your created world enough plausibility to be immersive.
It’s also perhaps a cautionary tale about making sure you do condense your research into usable material. To use the example I opened with, there’s a world of difference between including how you start a truck as an aside in a story as part of the plot, and a lengthy comparison of truck models and technological advances in commercial automotive internal combustion engine design. (Yes, I’m looking at you Stephenson). I’ve talked before about the importance of suspension of disbelief.
Reading my first book (on international law and peace building) has already sparked a slew of questions in the insurgency in my novel, the causes of the preceding civil war and the motivations of several of my characters. Nothing (yet) has demanded a massive transformative effort on the manuscript, but it has shone a (harsh?) light on several of the bits of the plot and background that I hadn’t thought needed to be coloured in or textured. It’s stimulated that bastard voice at the back of any writer’s mind that nitpicks and asks, “Oh, but what about…”. It’s probably for the best that I’m actually doing this at second-draft phase, to be honest.
This is going to be especially important (for me) in the intermittently placed excerpts from an academic paper that are speckled through the structure of the book, partially acting as a Greek Chorus. No proper anthropologist is going to look at these and feel a spark of admiration, but a glimmer of recognition and a basic “well-at-least-it-checks-the-boxes” nod is important. It’s not about whether it’s realistic, it’s about whether it’s plausible and believable.
This is also the problem with research. No work of fiction is ever going to surpass the immense body of knowledge collected by generations of scholars, and at some point you have to accept that there are a finite number of rabbit-holes you can practically go down in search of usable knowledge. That knowing the names of the Fascinating Witches who put the britches of the boys who put the powder on the noses of the ladies of the harem of the court of King Caractacus… doesn’t actually add anything. The search for knowledge needs to be targetted in a way that compliments your worldbuilding.
The other thing about this sort of research is that it requires time. There are no shortcuts (although interviews with experts can provide specific answers to specific questions). As a busy mum (!), it sometimes be a chore finishing a coherent thought during the space of a day, let alone allocating hours at a time to read, process and construct reflective notes that can be utilised as a writing resource at a later date. Woolf unfortunately remains highly relevant:
“Give [him] a room of [his] own and five hundred a year, let [him] speak [his] mind and leave out half that [he] now puts in, and [he] will write a better book one of these days.”
Therefore in order to reasearch, sometimes you must be a guerilla, striking where the opportunity allows, using the resources available, and hoping that victory will be achived by a hundred little wars rather than in single, decisive campaigns.