What’s the magic formula to book research? Spoiler – there isn’t one. But we can look to the greats for clues. William takes a sneak peek at the workbooks of John le Carré, Margaret Atwood, Lee Child, Jennifer Egan, Hilary Mantel and even Bill Shakespeare.
The acknowledgement section is often my first port of call in a book. It tells us a lot about a writer and their approach to research. The size of the section alone – or lack thereof – gives us the first big clue.
There are the method researchers and the obsessives. There are the pantsers who leave it to the end or the slackers who leave it out altogether – ahem William Shakespeare. And then there are the geeks where the tools and methods provide just as much joy as the discovery itself.
Just as our literary voices and world-views differ, we all come to research in different ways.
That’s why we should be wary of anyone trying to sell us any elixir to book research.
There is no magic formula on how to research for a book.
But we can rely on the age-old tradition of turning to those who have already succeeded – and emptying their well of experience dry. You might find one juicy tidbit or take away a morsel from all. The idea is not to copy but to let it all percolate and inform, until you find your own
Mixed with my twenty years of slogging away at the keyboard, I called in the A-Team of letters, starring the late John le Carré and Hilary Mantel, as well as Margaret Atwood, Lee Child and Jennifer Egan. Even William Shakespeare makes a cameo.
Jump ahead and get their take on book research:
Write first, research later
In his 2003 novel Absolute Friends, the late John le Carré (AKA David Cornwell) staged a plot-defining event (no spoilers) in the German city of Heidelberg. A large chunk of the book takes place in the city. For a while, his working title wasThe Siege of Heidelberg.
After completing a first draft, he sent the book to advance readers, including his friend and fellow writer, Anthony Barnett. He added a note for the readers to “forgive any topographical inaccuracies”.
The thing is … He had never been to Heidelberg. Though, he planned to visit the city later for corrections.
Shock? This was John le Carré after all, the spy’s spy novelist.
Le Carré explained to Barnett in a follow-up letter:
“I have never found it possible to write a novel out of a mass research. Better to write to form the theatrical and human point of view first, & correct the backcloth retrospectively.” →See Adam Sisman’s biography John le Carré: The Biography for more.
Margaret Atwood concurs:
“I think if you research too much ahead of time, it’s going to clog things up. You find out such interesting things that you long to put them in. But quite frequently, they sidetrack the plot …. So I like to write first and then research the details that I’ve put in to see if I’ve got them right.” →Get Margaret Atwood’s full take in her MasterClass.
It’s such a liberating approach. It lets you focus on the narrative and step into the shoes of your characters without tripping up on facts. The last thing you want to do is head off on a wild goose chase, mid-chapter, paragraph or sentence, checking whether your character would use a rotary dial phone or none at all.
In other words, just go with the flow.
It doesn’t mean not doing any research for a novel. Do all the background research you want. Sweat over your manuscript afterwards.
But when it comes to putting pen to paper, leave all the finicky book research for later.
I’m not sure of the nuts and bolts of le Carré’s operation, but subscribers to this approach usually get around the problem by using placeholders for the missing facts.
Some use the classic X or XYZ. Other clever writers insert the letters TK. Why? It is a unique arrangement of consonants in the English language and thus makes searching even easier.
Whatever the method, the idea is to do the research later and replace the placeholders with verified information.
Some writers even outsource this final step to external researchers. With the placeholder system, the external researcher can hit search, easily identify the gaps and fill them in. That leaves you with more time to bring your unruly characters into line.
Or even better, trust your instincts and wing it – which I suspect was le Carré’s method. I usually aim high in the first draft and use a name, place or whatever fact that lifts the story. I then highlight the word or passage in yellow for checking later.
The same method can be used for revisions. To keep me in the story, I highlight sections as I read: yellow for “needs checking” and green for “needs rewriting”.
Needless to say, my first drafts are very green.
Pick up the phone
Lee Child (AKA James Grant) is a superstar of thriller writing. He has sold 100 million copies and counting – it works out to be one every 20 seconds. His 27 novels in the Jack Reacher series dig into the intricacies of law enforcement agencies and the military.
He also happens to be a huge pantser. No plotting or structures, except for the ones he develops in his head over a joint. But that doesn’t mean he shirks from doing any book research.
He takes an old-school approach. He draws on the forgotten art of … picking up the phone.
As Lee Child told Marie Claire:
“When you’re a novel writer, people will often speak to you. For instance, the FBI in America has a press office; if you called it as a journalist they’re going to treat you differently to if I call … they will make it reflect well on themselves obviously, so you have to be a bit aware of that, but they will generally give you interesting information.”
That chimes with my own experience as a journalist, researcher and non-fiction writer. It is amazing what you can achieve by just asking a real-life human. I find that you can not only draw out more information but also stumble upon the new. And if it’s not forthcoming, you can navigate the situation on the fly and find another way – or beg.
It’s much harder to do that over email with set questions.
Just the cadence of the voice tells us a lot: whether they’re lying or tiptoeing around a lie – which should then be thoroughly investigated. In other words, it embeds the facts with context.
On that front, it’s even better if you can get a face-to-face meeting.
Apart from the extra sincerity of eye-to-eye contact, your interlocutor is more likely to help you out with follow-up questions when they can place a face to an email address. Plus, it’s harder for them to hang up on you.
So, go out and chat with people. It could be the FBI, a social worker or just good old nan. Your research and writing are going to be all the more richer if you can chat with someone with first-hand experience.
If you can’t do that, look for memoirs, past interviews, eyewitness accounts or witness testimony.
Look to your peers
Jennifer Egan is a self-proclaimed “obsessive researcher”. She has her book research down pat. So well, in fact, that she has a habit of telling the future – see below.
But when she was struggling to find a setting for her first historical novel, she turned to a writers’ group. She had the story, the characters and even the aesthetics of the book. Just no physical stage to let the story run free.
After sharing an early chapter, a group member suggested a neighbourhood on Coney Island. One scouting mission confirmed the location and the rest is history, as they say. It would not only become the setting but the title of her book: Manhattan Beach
Despite some of the big bust-ups, the literary world is actually quite collegial. That’s everyone from fellow writers to agents, editors and researchers.
Writing is inherently a lonely pursuit.
We slave away in the dark with no promise of reward at the end. And so we tend to help out when we can, if only to have some human interaction.
We are the first readers. We give advice about plot lines, characters or other elements of fiction. But sometimes we can also provide the missing pieces of non-fiction. In fact, you can add academics, researchers or your family into the mix.
Help can come at all stages of the writing process. In development, an expert on a subject can lay the ground for you and provide insight into a character – or tell you whether you’re barking up the wrong tree. And once you have the story, they can review your manuscript for authenticity.
It was no coincidence that John le Carré picked Anthony Barnett to read the first draft of Absolute Friends. In the late 1960s, Barnett had once lived in a Berlin commune, the very setting that brings le Carré’s two protagonists together.
At the end of the day, a novel is such a huge undertaking. We’ll take all the help that we can get.
Back to the future through book research
In her 2001 novel, Look at Me, Jennifer Egan introduced a social platform called Ordinary People, where people share their personalities online and advertisers make pay on their data. Next came A Visit from the Goon Squad, where she has two parents arguing about the merits of their children using a touch-screen device called the Starfish. The iPad and the book were released within six months of each other.
Prepare a basic tool kit
The late Hilary Mantel used to work down the book research funnel with a “human-first” approach, as she revealed to M. K. Tod. She started with the “general accounts of an era to biographies of major figures” and then moved to the “minor figures” and the “specifics”. At this point, she cast “the net across a whole culture”.
“Listen to their music, read what they would have read, look at the pictures they might have seen: who makes their world-view? To visit places if it’s feasible. To learn about food, furniture, clothes, all the small material things, and also to learn about the prejudices, assumptions, value judgements of a particular era.” →Read the whole interview here.
She was essentially preparing a basic toolkit to address the classic who, what, where, when and why – and a lot of how.
I do the same. At the beginning of each chapter structure, I will fill out a type of research form with all the basic info that I need. What are they wearing, smoking, drinking, etc? How was the weather at the time, along with the political climate? What would my characters be talking about?
Some of which I will internalise and let out naturally in the narrative – hopefully. And that’s a crucial point. As Atwood says:
“So you want the details to be accurate, but you don’t want them looking like research.”
To help the organic flow, I try to ringfence the nitty-gritty of research and keep my writing time sacred. I find that the analytical and creative sides of my brain aren’t the best playmates. I keep those toddlers separated as much as possible.
But I always know that I have a tool kit of information at the ready. I can easily come back to which and quickly pick the right tool for the job.
Digitised newspapers are a great source to cover the basics. With a few clicks, you can pick up the newspaper that your character may have bought from the newsstand and get all the events through their eyes, while also knowing if they did so in the middle of a snow storm or a pleasant summer’s day.
But never let good book research get in the way of a good story
Mantel capped off her advice with one small but very important caveat:
“To leave most of this on file; but select, for the reader, the telling detail.”
In other words, amass the biggest war chest of details you want, but only open it when the story dictates it. A tool is only as good as the problem it solves and the best tools never leave a trace of their use. Cumbersome details are the chisel marks on that Louis XVI console table.
Then again, it depends on your schtick and genre. There are, of course, the police procedurals and the military epics. We can’t forget the long tradition of Literary Realism.
But even the most detail-driven writers will draw a line if the non-fiction begins to impinge or makes the story seem inauthentic. Sometimes a lack of detail can be more authentic and sometimes the real can read unreal. This can all distract the reader and ultimately, detract from the book.
So, describe that four-piece suit to the last thread … and then cut it if it reads clunky or as my agent would say, doesn’t move the story forward.
Mantel hinted at the best way to get around this: “read what they would have read”.
Usually, the best umpires are the real-life contemporaries of your characters. Look at the literature of the time, everything from novels to newspaper articles. See how the writers draw a scene and what details they include.
Nine times out of ten, they’ll only mention a detail if it’s novel at the time or important in illuminating the subject – and not necessarily the everyday.
And be prepared to change the course
Back to Jennifer Egan and Manhattan Beach. Thanks to a tip from a fellow writer, she had the setting and the title. She had the story. All the gangsters were assembled. She had a powerful protagonist in Anna, a factory-worker cum WWII navy diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
She wrote the first draft and ripped it up. And not just because it was “bad” and “absolutely unspeakable” as she said.
She found a huge hole in the historical accuracy of the book.
It turns out, there were no women divers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during WWII.
But this pushed her to meet Andrea Motley Crabtree, the first woman diver in the US Army.
As Egan recounted to NPR:
“She was extremely helpful to me in understanding the difficulty of being a female diver. I mean, diving is a very physical undertaking, and so she was very articulate about the challenges of doing that as a woman, and especially the prejudice that she encountered. Men did not want her there and they made that very clear.”
This piece of corrective book research brought a whole new dimension to the story. It added an extra layer of tension to Anna’s life in the yard. It raised the stakes. A new adversary joined the bad guys in her novel and extra adversity drove the plot forward.
Necessity was the mother of her invention – and no doubt part of the success of the novel.
We’ve all been there. How a late discovery of an inconvenient truth or an anachronism can nearly bring your book undone.
But like in Egan’s case, these holes force us to get creative and mixed with a bit of courage to let go, the whole can be much better for it.
I remember learning late in the piece that a character had a stammer in real life. I freaked out. It meant that I would have to rewrite every piece of dialogue and interaction. It would change everything.
And it did. It changed everything for the better.
Secretly, I knew that there was something wrong with my character on the page. He was a chief justice in the 1930s. He was such a straight and upright pillar of society that he was, dare I say, unrelatable. This stammer, this so-called chink in his armour opened up a whole new window into his interior.
Keep your characters close, your settings far
The discovery of the speech impediment hit home. I also have a stammer and know what effect it can have on every facet of life. For this reason, I could identify its power and delicately thread it through the story with authenticity.
I could never re-capture the exact lived experience of my real-life character. I had never visited the 1930s in person, let alone lived through the times as a chief justice. Except for a few mentions in letters, the historical record was also sparse on the matter. It was not something that one tended to advertise – believe me, I know.
But I knew the rocky terrain of the stutterer very well. In fact, I probably had a better idea of what was going through his head than his contemporaries did.
I also reminded myself that I was writing fiction, as Egan no doubt told herself. The external is untouchable (dates, events, etc) and demands careful book research, but the interior is the domain of the novelist.
This addresses the conundrum of every novelist writing about a setting or period that they have never visited.
At this junction, allow me to call in a writer by the name of William Shakespeare.
He took us to Padua, Verona, Venice, Rome, Athens, Troy, Vienna, Zealand, Alexandria and all around France.
By my count, out of the 38 plays accredited to him, 25 are set outside his native Britain. And even with his “British plays”, nearly half of which include trips over the Channel and almost all occur in another time period.
And yet there is no record that he had ever left Old Blighty.
It helped that he wrote plays. There is little detail on settings in his stage directions. He left the stage production to others. But none of it mattered.
He didn’t explore places. He travelled into the murky depths of the human condition – a place that he apparently knew quite well.
The settings and environments may change. The triggers may be different. But on at least a basic level, humans are largely wired the same – and have been perhaps ever since we joined the tribe.
For the same reason that a Shakespeare play from Elizabethan times can strike a chord with us today, the writer can both travel into foreign territory and chronicle the journey with authenticity.
We do so by writing what we know. That is, we base the characters and their traits on those we know, including ourselves. Our friends, family and acquaintances can be exported into foreign climes without much alteration or appear simply in spirit through multiple characters.
The drama may take place somewhere foreign, but the drama itself makes the story and characters make the drama.
Of course, today we have to be painfully careful in how far we go. There are no-go zones, particularly in terms of cultural appropriation.
But at the same time, we should not forget what makes the novel so great, for the writer and the reader alike.
To venture into the unknown, in the shoes of the other. That’s the thrill and the heart of the novel. It’s where imagination and empathy meet.
If you can negotiate that nexus with skill and care, then you have the makings of a great novel, regardless if it’s set in another world.
What’s your story?
You don’t need to be a celebrity to find out ‘Who Do You Think You Are’. Now you can have an historian uncover your family history and bring it to life in your own interactive web documentary. →So, what’s your story?