ATQ36: How much research does a writer need to do?
How in-depth does a writer need to go to research a story? This is fiction, after all. Isn’t it best if I just make things up? I don’t feel very creative when I’m researching – it just seems like I’m stealing things. I should be more inventive shouldn’t I?
I’m actually passionate about research.
Not research via the internet, or sitting in a chair reading. That’s no good at all. You learn so much, but you don’t feel it in your gut, or your heart.
I mean research by going out and actually physically entering the world about which you are writing.
That kind of deep research is one of the joys of this job. So often it throws up incredible material that elevates your script.
Get into the real world of your story
In my time I’ve had many days and nights driving around London in cars full of armed police officers.
For a TV series treatment I lived in a circus for two weeks.
For a play I passed days locked in with young offenders in remedial justice schemes, and nights with paramedics in ambulances.
While I was writing for a hospital drama I witnessed a medical team move from casual standby to full battle stations as a helicopter arrived carrying the tragic victims of a major road accident.
I wanted to write an action adventure story about a WW1 submarine crew, so I wangled being shown around the Royal Navy Submarine Museum by two career submariners, who told me the most epic stories of their time at sea.
I’ve had long, face to face conversations to domestic abuse survivors, career criminals, barristers, forensics teams…
I could go on, but you get the point.
Did it help the writing?
The stories, characters and dialogue that I came up with after these research trips were all far, far stronger than they would have been if I’d just ‘made it up’.
I look back on the scripts that were written in this way, and they are the ones I think are my best.
Reasons for this
When you spend time immersed in the real world of your story, you can’t help but fall in love with both it, and the people in it.
That love can’t help but emerge in your writing one way or another.
Truth is usually stranger than fiction. You will see, or hear, things that you would simply never imagine otherwise. All these little details add so much texture and richness to your writing, from the fine texture right through to major story points.
Finally, research is a fantastic cure for writer’s block. After two weeks spent in a circus I had enough material for three TV series.
So please, yes, research like crazy..!
(And don’t be afraid of asking the people you want to study directly. You’d be amazed at how many people want to tell their stories.)
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