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Research Matters – Patricia O’Reilly

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Plotting and Planning

Patricia O'Reilly

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‘To write it, it took three months; to conceive it—three minutes; to collect the data in it—all my life.’

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Research, whether major or minor, is a vital part of writing. There is nothing mysterious about research. It simply involves knowing where to get relevant information that you, as the writer, require. It is particularly important in non-fiction to be able to source relevant material, whereas one of the cardinal rules of writing fiction is not to allow research to dominate or to intrude. Fiction should be story-led not research-led

A generally quoted statistic is that for every 1000 words you write on a subject with which you’re not familiar and which requires research, you are going to need in the region of 5000 words of research.

The way we writers research is as varied as the way we structure and write our short stories, novels and plays. Be open to discovering what best suits you. By trial and error I’ve found the following method to be both time efficient and effective.

  • Initially I do preliminary research only – to give me a feel of subject/location
  • Next I loosely structure plot and develop characters
  • Then I write my first draft
  • On completion of my first draft, I then carry out whatever detailed research is required.

Daft, you may think? But the reason behind this way of working is two-fold:

  • Firstly, it ensures that my story is plot-led not research-led which is an easy trap to fall into.
  • Secondly, I only research what is necessary to fill in facts and enhance plotline, characters and location

Obviously the information that you require will dictate where you carry out your research.

Primary Research is the study of a subject through firsthand observation. It can be as simple as watching the bud of a rhododendron unfold and use that to give an added texture to your work – say as a symbol of a growing relationship. Or if the setting for your story is in, say, a hotel, marketing company or unfamiliar location, ideally go to those places, notebook or recorder in hand, and ask questions of the pertinent person/people. In my opinion, Primary Research is the type of research that has your story leaping off the page, it adds sparkle that you cannot achieve unless you leave your desk.

Sources of Secondary Research are archives, newspapers, books, etc. and increasingly online. Basically Online Research involves searching the internet for information, which is then put together in a document that is rich in content, readability and flow. Google is an obvious mine of information but be aware that accuracy of the information is not guaranteed.

That said I don’t know how I managed before Google – often just typing in key words brings results.  I’ve found invaluable sites, such as:

  • www.wikipedia.org – free encyclopedia that anyone can edit (but be warned, this can result in stunning inaccuracies. Never rely on wikipedia, always look for corroboration from another source)

The National Archives of Ireland are at Bishop Street, Dublin 8, tel: 01-4072300. website:http://www.nationalarchives.ie – much information is online; its site is easy to negotiate and the staff are enormously helpful if you either ring in or visit.

The National Library of Ireland has a superb database of over 180,000 indexed records for Irish manuscripts and articles from Irish periodicals available online at http://sources.nli.ie

The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, tel: +44 (0) 208876 3444. website:http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk is the site to visit if you require UK or Commonwealth information. As someone who has used the facilities regularly – both onsite and in person – I can’t talk highly enough of the assistance I receive from the researcher allocated to me.

Libraries are great, a joy to work in and I’ve found the staff helpful beyond belief.

  • The Chester Beatty Library, The Clock Tower Building, Dublin Castle, Dublin 2 tel: 01-4070750. website: www.cbl.ie The reference library includes manuscripts and scrolls of Chinese, Japanese, Burmese, Biblical, Arabic, Tibetian and Mongolian origin. Apply for research facility to director
  • Corporation and County Council Libraries Of special interest to researchers are:

–          Dublin City Libraries HQ, 138-144 Pearse Street, Dublin 2. which houses Dublin City Library & Archive. tel: 01-6744999; email: dublinstudies@dublincity.iecityarchives@dublincity.ie

–          The Ilac Centre, Henry Street, Dublin, 1. houses: The Central Library tel: 01-8734333; Children’s Library tel: 01 8734333; ; Business Information Centre tel: 01 8733996; Music Library tel: 01 8734333.

For further information log onto www.dublincitypubliclitraries.ie

  • The National Library of Ireland, Kildare Street, Dublin 2. tel: 01-6030200; website:  www.nli.ie. Offers the crème de la crème of research facilities for historical matters, though, as seating is so limited would-be researchers are encouraged to use their local library if material is available. Ring in for details on reader’s ticket and manuscript reader’s tickets.
  • Universities: have comprehensive libraries and research facilities, but you’ll probably need a reading card, usually only available to those who have studied there. It’s best to make an email query.

Belfast – The Queen’s University (www.gub.ac.uk/library);

Cork – University College Cork, UCC, (www.ucc.ie/library);

Derry – Mcgill University (www.iirc.mcgill.ca/library)

Dublin – University College Dublin UCD (www.ucd.ie/library)

Trinity College, TCD (www.tcd.ie/library)

Galway –  NUI Galway, (www.nuigalway.ie/library);

Limerick – University of Limerick (www.ul.ie/library)

Research can open wonderful doors to your plot and characters, and be hugely interesting, but as I have suggested, don’t get bogged down in it, and be very careful not to dollop huge chunks of research into your manuscript. Information dumping, or one character telling another character something they already know for the purposes of the reader will stifle your story, jarring your reader.

About the author

© Patricia O’Reilly May 2011

For more excellent advice from Patricia O’Reilly, see Getting Non-Fiction Published

To learn more about Patricia’s work in her own words, see her interview with Sarah Downey for Writing.ie

Patricia O’Reilly is a writer and lecturer based in Dublin. She has worked as a freelance journalist and has written many radio plays, short stories and documentaries.  She writes both fiction and non-fiction books. Her novels have been translated into several languages.

Patricia O’Reilly’s novels are Once Upon a Summer ( 2000); Felicity’s Wedding (2001); and Time and Destiny (2003), A Type of Beauty: the story of Kathleen Newton (2010).
Her non-fiction publications are Dying with Love (1992); Writing for the Market (1994); Earning Your Living from Home ( 1996); Working Mothers(1997); and Writing for Success (2006).

Patricia O’Reilly www.patriciaoreilly.net; blog: lovewriting.patriciaoreilly.net

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