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?

Garrick
Screenwriter

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?

Immeasurably.

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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4 Comments
  1. Of course you have to research. Even if you know a subject or place well, you still need to write with authority. I write about foreign places — Africa, Greece, Palestine — because I have lived and worked there. That was my research — it’s called a life of research. If you don’t know the hymn, for instance, that people sing on Palm Sunday, and instead have them marching around the church singing “Don’t worry, be happy” — who is going to to take you seriously. Fiction is not fake. Fiction is real life altered and enhanced.

    • There’s a case to be made for the other side. But not by me.

  2. Hi, I felt just like your example re the circus, though the series spec I am writing is set in Edinburgh and I can’t up ‘n’ leave right now, (honest,) so am using my experience of having been there a couple of times with a TON of internet research on places, names, distances, traditions, etc. to feel my way around the city.

    I’m very very into a 3D (at least… actually it goes into other dimensions too, but that’s another discussion) approach to the world I’m creating. I have to live, breathe and feel every motivation of my characters as if they were people I know for real…. and I’m loving doing it. But getting back to the topic here, one thing I wasn’t sure about regarding depth of research, is how far one should go on finer detail?

    I’m writing a drama/mystery TV series spec, and have learned LOADS about the police, ranks, terminologies etc. (also a load of fun) but say I have a surveillance set up, how accurate do I need to be about equipment, procedures etc? Obviously the final show (after, I suspect even more re-re-re-writing, even once greenlit!) will need that level of detail, but I would hope researchers/field specialists would be consulted upon for this down the line? If my info reads well, and sounds legit enough in the main, is this enough?

    What’s the view here?

    Thanks.

    • I think the key is to do the research until you know the world intimately, but feel free to throw it away when it comes to writing. Story and character trumps accuracy every time – this is fiction, not documentary.

      Research is there, ultimately, to enhance the entertainment – the trip into another world is entertaining and that’s why we try to make it feel real – it tends to ground the drama and enhance the pleasure of the audience.

      You’re absolutely right – when you approach production you should get access to technical experts who can consult on precise details – if that’s the way the director/producer want to go. (There are many forms of drama where realism is less important than a good strong story.)

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