Doing your research (or not)

This article was originally published on the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook site.

When you write crime and you’re chatting to people about what you do (say at a party), sooner or later the question always gets asked: ‘You must do a lot of research?’ That’s the point where I look sheepish and shuffle away towards the crisps. The truth is, I didn’t do a lot of research for The Fall. There were several reasons for this. One, I didn’t think I was writing a crime novel, so I was focussed more on the characters as people than the jobs they did or the investigation and trial they were caught up in. I wrote the story as I wanted and then checked the facts after. I’d gotten things wrong, and in a few places the plot had to be changed, but nothing catastrophic. Two, I didn’t have many contacts, and as an unpublished writer, had very little idea how to go about getting them. And three, I just didn’t want to.

I don’t mean that to sound lazy – I worked very hard on the book. But I know the dangers of research too. You can get far too interested, reading from footnote to footnote until you’ve forgotten your novel altogether and are enrolled on a Ph.D in forensic psychology (in all seriousness, it’s happened). There’s also a danger that you want to display all the hard work you’ve put in, so the research becomes a leaden hand upon your novel. Something like: ‘Mary reached out her hand to the pick up the bone china cup, which was invented in London in 1748…’

So when it comes to research, there are two questions to answer: how do you do it? And also: do you have to do it?

Some authors love doing research, and take pride in the patina of truth it lends their work. For example, Peter James is famous for throwing himself (sometimes literally) into it, and recently spent a day working as a binman for his next novel. If that’s you, then enjoy it. The internet is the obvious first stop nowadays, and then are many useful blogs run by professionals ( and are two). But Anne Zouroudi, who writes Greek-set mysteries, advises not to rely entirely on the internet: ‘Other sources are far better for developing your writing. Second-hand bookshops are goldmines for in-depth (if sometimes dated) knowledge, and I’ve followed many a new path from ideas sparked by browsing their shelves. Visit libraries and their archives, and talk to people, the older the better. The elderly invariably have interesting stories to tell.’ As for making contact with professionals, it can be very tricky to try and do this through the official channels – they’ll most likely send you to the press office. The best way I’ve found is to ask friends, family, friends of friends and so on. You’ll be surprised who you can find this way.

But what research should you be doing? DE Meredith, whose Victorian-set crime will be published in the UK this summer, says, ‘I often ask myself how would my character have felt about this or that in the 1850s. Readers of historical crime fiction want a vibrant, authentic world they can believe in, which is steeped in the history, but God forbid, not loaded down by it. Nobody wants a lecture about how much you – the author – know about the potato blight or nineteenth-century politics. The work needs to breathe, be full of the sounds and smells and the nuances of the period, or it simply doesn’t ring true. So do the research extensively, get it right, but wear the erudition lightly when you come to tell your story.’

This last point is important. Think what your research is for (adding an authentic feel, contributing to fresh and exciting plot twists, helping flesh out your characters) and what it’s not for (turning your book into a treatise on the UK criminal justice system). And if you really really don’t enjoy research, read lots of crime novels and see how they do it. Some authors are extremely clever, and can even produce a whole police series without mentioning any specific acts, forms, or job titles, or anyone actually being arrested. I’ve said it before, but the same applies here – you don’t have to write your crime novel in any particular way, you just have to write a good book.

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