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Resources for Writers

Research – and how not to do it! by Fiona Gartland

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Article by Fiona Gartland ©.
Posted in Resources (, ).

Research is an essential part of writing fiction. It lends authenticity to a creation which is otherwise entirely fabricated. And readers, though they are prepared to suspend their disbelief in certain situations, will quickly topple out of any fictional world if its factual backdrop jars.

To take a simple example, imagine I am writing a novel set in 1982 among a group of yuppies – young upwardly-mobile professionals – who live in London. For the purposes of the plot I decide the protagonist will carry a mobile phone in her handbag.

Is my reader going to say “okay then, I can live with that” or is he or she going to recoil in horror, shout “anachronism” and dump my novel in the nearest bin? This is not something I want to happen and so I need to do some research.

The problem for me and I think for many writers is that research becomes so diverting that an excessive amount of time is spent on it. I might start out wanting to test whether the above scenario is plausible and tell myself I’ll just do a little google search to find out when mobile phones became widely available, then . . .

Did you miss me? I’ve done it there, just now. In order to bring you a plausible year, I’ve gone searching on my phone for when mobile phones were invented – 1973 as it happens – and I’ve spent ten minutes reading about all the mildly interesting information thrown up in the article I found when I could have been writing this article. I’ve also learnt things that I probably will never have any use for – such as that the first mobile phone weighed 1.1 kilos and was made by Motorola. And I’ve wasted time seeing if I could spot the first phone I ever owned – a Nokia 3310. Those were the days when all I could do with the apparatus was make calls, send text messages and play snake. Now I can research anything wherever I am the moment I need to know it. I don’t even have to remember things for myself anymore. Who sang that song I’ve suddenly recalled about the sound of a soul when I was in my teens? When did Jackie Kennedy marry Aristotle Onassis?

The internet is big, shiny and distracting and I am a magpie. If I calculated how much time I waste there and spent it writing instead I’d probably have produced at least another novel. And it is not only the time spent searching that’s a problem, for me what’s more important is the interruption in the flow of work. It can be hard to get back to it again once I stop.

I pause here to remember how grateful I am to the internet.

Who would have told me the answer to my question about Onassis before I could access the worldwide web? How could I have tracked down the performers of some vague snippet of lyrics that had been bugging me like an earworm? My choices were limited. I could wait until my brain somehow pushed the answers forward from the deep recesses of my subconscious to my conscious mind, which might take anywhere from ten minutes to, well, forever. I could ask someone else with a better memory who might or might not know the answers. Or I could seek out my local library and search through encyclopaedias, histories of America and books on the music of the 1980s until I found what I was looking for.

This research would also be time consuming. A trip to the local library with all its delicious-smelling books could easily distract me for an entire day. And I might not even be able to find the answer at the end of it. So perhaps the internet isn’t as time-consuming as I think.

Here I stop to wonder how Agatha Christie did her research. Had she a vast stock of books about poisons? Though I couldn’t immediately find the answer online, I did enjoy a long article on Smithsonian.com about Greenway, her home in later years. More time vanishing into the ether.

There are of course, many questions that the internet cannot answer and for that a writer has to seek out someone with experience in the field. I never knew, for example, that gardaí often call their inspectors “cig”, a short version of the Irish for inspector, cigire. Only a person who’s worked in the force could tell me that. So time spent talking to people with experience is definitely worth it.

Otherwise, I’m beginning to make efforts to get on top of my distractibility and, to that end, here are the rules I have set for myself which you may or may not find useful:

  1. Before googling, ask do I really need to know this now? If it will impact on the plot, such as in the example of the phone above, then the answer is yes, see B. If not, go to E.
  2. Search for the information, but keep the criteria as tight as possible and as soon as the answer is found, put the phone down and click straight back into the work. Use an egg timer if it helps. And no checking emails “just in case”.
  3. If the search is taking longer than a few minutes, check if it’s worded correctly and include the name of a publication where you think the answer might be.
  4. If you’re still searching after fifteen minutes, consider calling someone who might know or send an email to an expert. You’d be surprised how helpful people can be.
  5. Write “xxx” where the information should be and get on with the novel. Once you’ve reached the end of your first draft, go back and fill in all the xxx’s.

(c) Fiona Gartland

About Now That You’ve Gone:

“I’ve witnessed many sordid things in my life. As a stenographer at the Criminal Courts of Justice, I thought I’d seen how low a human being might stoop. But one week into O’Malley v O’Malley and I’d decided there was nothing uglier than a bitter break up.”

Stenographer Beatrice Barrington is back and working in the family law courts in Dublin when a friend seeks her help. Georgina O’Donnell’s husband, Andrew Dalton, has been murdered and Gardaí are keeping her in the dark. Georgina thinks Beatrice has influence with the Gardaí and might assist her to find some answers.

Beatrice feels great sympathy for Georgina and her three children and agrees to help. She seeks the aid of retired detective Gabriel Ingram, who now has a lodger in no.9 Oxmantown Road, a young woman who has her own secrets.

Together Beatrice and Gabriel begin to uncover Andrew Dalton’s double life and the shady world he had got himself embroiled in. Then, when a stranger visits who says he is an old friend of her husband’s, the pressure becomes too much for Georgina and Beatrice finds herself trying to protect her friend and her family.

But who is she protecting them from?

Order your copy online here.


Fiona Gartland is a staff journalist with The Irish Times, working with the company for 13 years. She has written extensively in the legal area and covered high profile criminal trials at the Criminal Courts of Justice, as well as family and civil law cases. She was shortlisted for the Francis McManus Short Story competition on half a dozen occasions and has been published in magazines and broadcast on RTÉ. She lives in Dublin with her husband and four children.