In an interview with Judith Spelman for Writing Magazine this month, author Emma Donoghue spoke on the subject of research for fiction-writing, an element of the writing process that she takes very seriously. She said:
If you hope to find any interesting details about the time and place, you have to read more widely than you ever have before. If you are trying to be efficient about it and research just as much as you need, you will do too little. It’s important to do a huge amount of research and throw most of it away.
I wholeheartedly agree (well, except with ‘throw most of it away’ – I always keep my research notes just in case). Whenever I write a new novel, I dedicate at least three months to researching the era and setting in which I am situating the story. If I can, I travel to locations. But certainly I watch films and television programmes, listen to music, look at art and artefacts and read many, many books on many different subjects connected to the place.
For my new novel Indiscretion, for example, I had a wealth of knowledge from my trips to Spain, but I also immersed myself in Spanish culture, even down to serving tapas for supper, and I read widely. I needed to know all about the Spain of the 1950s: everything from fashions to music, courting customs to typical dates, landscapes to weather patterns, bullfighting customs to the culture of the gypsies, wine-making to horse-rearing, native flora and fauna to city architecture. I was especially careful to research the history of the era from a political standpoint: how the country had been shaped by the civil war, the Second World War and the leadership of Franco. And, as always, I took a particular interest in the legends of the land, which say so much about a people.
The trick to researching, I have found, is to willingly follow tangents. As Emma Donoghue explained for the article, ‘I think the mistake a lot of teenagers make today is just to rely on Wikipedia.’ That’s not to say that one may not use Wikipedia, though – only that it is a first stop to open the door to more solid and interesting sources. Take the Alhambra, for example, which features in Indiscretion. Having been there myself, I had a good deal of knowledge in my head, but I needed more: intricate details and hard-and-fast facts. The internet gave a broad overview, but also links to many sources that provide much more depth, from non-fiction explorations to other fictional portrayals, as in Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra (first published in 1832).
For me, what is important in researching is filling your mind with enough information that you can successfully intrigue your reader and transport him or her to the setting. But, as Emma Donoghue suggests, one must discard most of it for the purposes of the fiction, meaning that the author will always know a great deal more about the setting of the story than the reader. That is how it must be, for the background cannot impede the plot. And personally, I find this a very pleasurable element of being a novelist. To have a job that entails finding out so many fascinating details… it’s a delight. It also means I have a head filled with all sorts of knowledge that won’t find its way onto the pages of my novels. And that’s where author blogs come in, of course…