The Joys and Perils of Research: Under the Night by Alan Glynn
Doing research for a novel is a trap – a gorgeous honey-trap you set for yourself. It is work, or a form of it, but it can easily undermine the very process that you’re supposed to be engaged with in the first place, which is writing. I’m a research junkie and will spend months drilling down on a subject that in the end may not even show up in the book I’m working on, or may feature only as a throwaway detail, a detail I could probably have gleaned from a cursory glance at the subject on Wikipedia. As a result, I have a permanent, angsty thrum in the pit of my stomach. It’s this awful suspicion that I am wasting a lot of my own time, that I am engaged in an elaborate (and not-so-secret) form of self-sabotage.
There are two culprits here. One is the internet, our great library of Babel. It’s all the knowledge in the world, accessible at the stroke of a few keys. And used judiciously, of course, the internet can be a writer’s best friend. But let’s be honest. When it comes to Googling, a bit like with heroin or sugar, judicious use is not the first thing that springs to mind. Head on down into a research rabbit-hole and you may never see the light of day again.
The second culprit is what Steven Pressfield in The War of Art calls Resistance – our powerful and ever-present compulsion to procrastinate. Resistance may take the form of a sudden need to watch Netflix, or to empty the dishwasher, or to drink vodka. In this particular case, it takes the form of convincing yourself that you’re a fraud, that you don’t know enough about the subject in hand and therefore shouldn’t be so presumptuous as to think you could actually write about it. The obvious solution is to do some research, right? Just an eency bit – a few facts, a date, the precise term for that thing, who said what to whom, and what the real difference between who and whom is anyway. Fine, knock yourself out, but be warned – before you know it, terabytes of data will have drifted past your eyeballs and you’ll be no nearer to starting.
At this point it might be instructive to remind yourself that that thing you’re supposed to be starting is actually a work of fiction, a work of the imagination. Not to state the obvious here, but that usually involves making stuff up. It’s also important to remember that made-up is not the same as fake. Because if there is truth in fiction, it doesn’t necessarily lie in the accuracy of assembled facts, it lies more in the commitment to how that assembly of facts is imagined. Most research, therefore, should be of secondary concern to a writer, and as such it should be controlled in some way – either done on a need-to-know basis as you write, or done retrospectively.
There can’t be any rules for this, however. A writer has to find his or her own way. But it helps to be aware of the pitfalls. Some sections of my novel Bloodland, for example, were set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and I did a lot of research in preparation for it. In fact, for months I was pretty much paralysed as I read book after book on the subject, feeling that I couldn’t proceed with the writing until I’d maybe read just one more. In the event, what was most challenging, as well as satisfying, about writing those sections of the novel wasn’t putting what I’d learned on display, it was coming up with the stuff I couldn’t have found anywhere else except deep in the recesses of my own noggin. The factual details are important, but they aren’t what make a story a story.
For my latest book, Under the Night, I also did a lot of research, much of it focusing on 1953, the year in which a good deal of the novel is set. I boned up on the CIA’s MK-Ultra programme, on Robert Moses, on Madison Avenue, on LBJ, on John von Neumann, on a hundred other things – but again, in many of these instances, at least as they ended up in the book, you might barely even notice. This is because the ratio of research done to research used is always so alarmingly high. A part of the problem is that I am continually drawn to subjects that require research. I suppose it’s just that I don’t know when to stop.
I’ve often thought that one solution to the problem might be, as is often advised, to write about what I know. It’s an attractive prospect, page after page where I wouldn’t have to look anything up – nothing about US politics or corporate malfeasance, no obscure architectural details or design references, no “What sort of coats did they wear back then?” or “How do you hack into a car and shut down its safety features?” Just . . . me, and what I do and see around me everyday, relationships, memories, little moments and epiphanies – stuff I can recall and describe without having to resort to a search engine.
Yeah, right. I wouldn’t want to read that either. It might help with my daily word count and relieve a bit of stress, but it’s not what I’m in this for. Nevertheless, after the Congo and 1953, you’d think that next time out I might want to go a bit easy on myself. Maybe Dublin, circa 2018? But apparently I don’t have any choice in the matter. What I’m looking at – or what seems to be looking at me – is Washington D.C. in 1878.
See you in six months, if I’m lucky.
(c) Alan Glynn
About Under the Night:
1950s Manhattan – Ad man Ned Sweeney finds himself an unwitting participant in MK Ultra trials, the CIA’s covert study of psychoactive drugs. The experiment introduces him to MDT-48, a mind-expanding smart drug, which takes him away from his wife and young son and straight to the corridors of the richest and most powerful people of his day.
But before long, Ned is dead.
Over 60 years later, Ned’s grandson, Ray, meets Clay Proctor – a retired government official who may be able to illuminate not only Ned’s life and death, and also the truth behind the mysterious MDT-48.
Both a sequel and prequel to Alan Glynn’s classic debut, which became the #1 hit movie Limitless, Under the Night is an irresistible thriller about the seductive power and dangers of unlocking the human mind.
Order your copy online here.