Don't Let Research Overload Get in the Way of Your Story

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I believe in writing my thrillers in having an inseparable trinity of Character, Research and Plot. And I have put them deliberately in what I consider to be their order of importance:

This guest post is by Peter James. James is the #1 international bestselling author of the Roy Grace series, with more than 15 million copies sold all over the world. His novels have been translated into thirty-six languages; three have been filmed and three are currently in development. All of his novels reflect his deep interest in the world of the police, with whom he does in-depth research. He lives in England.

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Photo credit Gareth Ransome.

People read books to find out what happens to characters they meet at the start of the story, engage with and care about – whether they are good people or villains. Characters are the key to all fiction, and any novel will, first of all, stand or fall on whether the characters come alive to the readers.

By their very nature, readers are intelligent people, and I have always taken the view that the most satisfying books are those where, when you have finally finished, you realize you’ve not just read a great story, you’ve also learned something new about the world we live in and about human nature. For this to happen the reader must believe they are in safe hands, an author who really knows what he or she is saying.

Every book is a huge investment of time for a reader – hours, days, sometimes even weeks. Nothing loses me faster as a reader than to realize part way through a book the writer has not done the research. An example of this was a thriller writer, who I shall not name (!) who some years ago set a novel in England. At one point he had his central character driving his car up a road towards Birmingham, England getting closer with every mile. He named the road as the M25. But, the M25 is the ring road around London!!!!! You could drive around it 24/7 for the next ten years and still not get any nearer to Birmingham. At that point I thought, OK, if the author hasn’t even bothered to look at a road map, do I really want to bother continuing with this book? And I didn’t.

Way back in 1981 my first novel, Dead Letter Drop was published. It was a spy thriller and I made most of it up. The book did not sell well. In 1982 my second spy thriller, Atom Bomb Angel was published. It was a book that had a profound impact on the way I was to research my novels from then on. I had some key scenes in my story in Namibia, but I was short of money and I couldn’t afford to travel there. So instead, I gleaned information about Namibia from books (this was before the internet) and from talking to someone who had once worked out there. When the was published, in one of my first newspaper interviews I was asked about my experiences in Namibia and what I thought of the country. With my face bright red, I fibbed and squirmed my way through the interview, mumbling about it being quite hot and that there was a lot of sand…

I realized that looking at a map or at photographs will tell you what a place looks like, but nothing other than actually being there can tell you what it smells like, sounds like, feels like. I vowed then and there that never again would I write about anywhere that I had not visited, nor anything that I had not in some way experienced – death excepted.

My third spy thriller, Billionaire, came out in 1983, and although I put more research into the locations it did equally badly in sales as the first two. I poured my heart out to a friend working then at Penguin (Elizabeth Buchan, who went on to become a hugely successful writer herself) and she said to me, “Why are you writing spy thrillers? What can you ever know about the world of spies? You’re up against writers like John Le Carré who’d worked in the Intelligence services, who have an inside knowledge you will never have. You will only ever succeed,’ she said, ‘By writing about first what you are passionate about, and secondly what you can access and research in depth.’

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It was the best piece of advice I was ever given, and I’ve followed it religiously ever since. Although it has led to many moments of terror – perhaps the worst being when I was incarcerated in a coffin with the lid screwed down, for 30 minutes, during my research for my first Roy Grace novel, Dead Simple. And I am very deeply claustrophobic….

There is always the decision about how much of what you have researched you leave in and how much you delete. The temptation is always to leave far too much in, but often that is damaging to the story. You as an author may think, Look at me, I know all this stuff, how clever am I??? But the reader will be thinking, Do I really need to wade through six pages of detail taken from the maintenance manual of an AK47???

I think the decision is an easy one, actually. I have an invisible sign in front of me for every line I write in a novel: DOES IT DRIVE THE NARRATIVE FORWARD?

That is a very simple question. If it is not driving your story forward, then why have you included a line or a paragraph or a page? We need as writers to give a feeling of place, and we need always to remember the senses – sight, sound, taste, touch and smell – when describing anything – but as economically as possible. It is important always to give a context and to create atmosphere. And it is vital to describe characters – but this should be a succinctly as possible. We all know what male and female humans look like. We don’t need to describe anyone has having two legs and two arms and one head. But what is a very effective way of describing a person to it sketch their unique characteristics, what makes them different, individual. Someone I learned a lot from in my early days – and still do – is Graham Greene. He is a master at sketching a character in just a few brushstrokes, rarely describing them any detail, he just gives you a sense of the personality, their foibles, their dress sense, and within a couple of lines you instantly know this person.

My final tip is that a big part of our job as writers of fiction is to make the reader do the work. At a certain level, when the reader’s mind is buzzing with thoughts, that’s when the book is truly satisfying. So don’t always describe everything, whether it is explaining jargon, or a machine or a building, or the motivation of a character. Give the reader just enough so they can work the rest out. That’s what really puts a big smile on a readers face. And will make them eager for your next book.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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