Friday, 17 December 2010

Researching a Fictional World

I've never been that keen on research. I know that for many authors, research is the be-all and end-all, but it just doesn't float my Antarctic survey ship. I've never read a great deal of non-fiction books (including writing ones) and I also find a lot of documentaries rather snoozeworthy. Narrative fiction has always been centre stage in my interests, so I prefer to research the few things that need to be correct and make up the rest.

All of this is probably the reason why I've stuck with contemporary settings in my work to date. I feel fairly confident that I understand how the modern world works and if I need to know the travel time between London and Edinburgh I can look at Google Maps, rather than having to work out how many teams of horses and riders would be required. One day, I'm sure I'll screw up my courage and write the 1960s novel that's rattling around in my head somewhere. Just not yet.

However, my current work-in-progress is set in an alternative present, and I've quickly discovered that means indulging in some fictional research - AKA world-building. Now, when I say this term, the first thing that springs to mind is some sub-Middle Earth fantasy world with Elves and Dwagons and a dull farm boy off on a quest to retrieve a piece of mystical tat (ok, pretty much the plot of Eragon). But I think we should reclaim world-building from those people who like to draw maps with unpronounceable place names and paint lead figures of Gandalf in their spare time. Because a well-built world is essential to the believability of any novel, no matter where it's set.

One of the hardest things about building a world is convincing the reader that it has always existed. Part of this is allowing the protagonist to be immersed in that reality and avoiding unnatural exposition. But there is also the issue of convincing yourself of the solidity of what you're writing about. In the past, I've tended to fudge this and take a wholly bottom-up approach, writing the story and filling in the details of the environment as I went along. While this worked and gave me the excitement of discovering the world along with my characters, it did give me credibility problems - I certainly had an uphill battle convincing early readers that the reality of Back from the Dead was tenable.

How then to find a balance between the joy of discovering a world through writing and the horror of realising that it doesn't make sense? Something new I'm trying for this book is writing supporting documentation that is contemporary but parallel to the narrative. For instance, both my main characters are in therapy at the start of the book, so I've been writing their psychological evaluations as seen through the eyes of the therapist character. This material probably won't make it into the text, but it's been useful for me to flesh out their personalities, the prevailing attitudes of the authorities in their world and also the rather unpleasant course of therapy that the doctor has in store for them. It's also much, much more interesting than filling in a character sheet.

There's plenty of further scope here - newspaper items, travel reporting, official documents, TV transcripts, diaries etc. These things are valuable in that they provide a kind of avoidance behaviour that still contributes directly to the story - while addressed in moderation, anyway. But I can also see a further life for them in terms of extras I can offer on the book's website, bonus material that voracious fans will lap up. Look no further than the recent The Thick of It book to see how supporting documents can take on a life of their own.

Ok, so none of this is rocket science and possibly quite close to what a lot of you are doing already. So please share - I'm interested in how you make your worlds believable and how much you write and plan that never makes it into the book itself. For instance, I was fascinated the other day as Ellen Renner described how she draws her characters to help her to visualise them - not least because I can neither draw nor tell you what my characters look like! I've also heard several writers say that they stage interviews with their characters in order to get to know them better.

What works for you? The comment box awaits...



  1. For me, the key to building a convincing world doesn't lie in the geography or architecture or broad strokes of the imagination, but in the intimate details of what things smell like and how they feel to the touch. The funny names and improbably beasties can come later.

    I find it fascinating that Ellen Renner sketches her characters, though I've heard that a lot of authors do that. It's a superb way of pulling out unexpected details and suggesting unwritten backstory.

  2. The problem with research sometimes is: when do you stop? I have an undergraduate textbook on Myths. We're talking about a doorstopper of a book, longer than any novel I've ever read. The font size is tiny. But I tend to get drawn into the world, and then find myself surfing websites to see what else I can include in the story, when really, I should just write. It's a work of fiction after all... fantasy even. Doesn't stop me from wanting it to be 'real'.

    Mine also has a complicated backstory of a non-existent (but still relatable) culture. My husband wonders how that culture suddenly popped into my head with all its rules and so forth! Best way to deal with that, I found, was to look at other cultures that do exist and then do a 'Pic and Mix'. I don't even need to do research for that - luckily born in a multi-cultural environment with friends from different cultures. :)

    Haven't done research 'actively' yet, although today, I was looking at falconry courses, just to be able to describe how it feels like when a huge bird flies towards you and lands on your hand. I think people may think I'm going mad.

  3. I too decided to chicken out of extensive research by plumping for a contemporary real-world setting - I can't imagine how writers of historical fiction even get started! And as for creating an entire world from scratch for a book? That just makes me dizzy.

    However, I've found that even with a contemporary setting I've still had to spend an enormous amount of time researching. In fact, as it is set in the real world with real issues that affect real people, I think it's possibly even more essential to get all my facts right and be as authentic as possible.

    It is quite addictive though - as Tina said, when do you stop? You can get so engrossed in your subject-matter you never get round to writing the book. However, it was through research that one of my major plot points arose, and took the book off in a completely new direction.

    However, I would caution against researching every tiny detail - at least during the first draft. As long as the main issues are truthful, I feel it's getting the story down first that matters - details can always be changed later.

    Though having said that I am totally inspired by Tina's falconry course - maybe I need a 'research' holiday or two...

  4. My WIP is set in Victorian times and luckily I love research! So often when looking for one thing I come across something else that is fascinating and useful for my book - in fact the whole idea for the book came from one line I just happened to read on Wiki.

  5. Great post Nick! I'm just broaching this for a new story. I had an inkling of an idea, picked up a book to do some research (first time for everything) and within a few pages of reading I had my story - you can't beat reality for finding fantasy... Has to be said though that once it had given me the bare bones, I dropped that book like a Dwagon and won't be looking at it again until I'm at least two drafts in!