Why research matters in novel writing

One of my favourite non-fiction books is Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer’s (& Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, & Myths by Susanne Alleyn, not only for the fascinating historical insights but for the amusing and often painfully awkward examples of not-researching-before-writing.

Once upon a time, research was difficult, unless you were writing about a time and a place you knew really well. You had to go to a reference library, contact (the old-fashioned ways) people who knew what they were talking about, or actually go and look at the place you wanted to write about. But that was then, and in the 21st century we have the internet to help us avoid trifling little errors such as referring to the “flat open fields of Sheffield” (Sheffield is built on seven hills) in a book I’ve forgotten everything else about apart from that one glaring demonstration of no research.

Does it matter? I think it depends. Writers, after all, make things up, and if you’re writing about far distant history then there’s always going to be a bit of guesswork involved anyway. You’re never going to be able to nail it down 100%.

However. If you are writing about contemporary Britain, for example, there are certain things you can easily check before you commit something to paper that will make a British person (or anyone who knows more than the absolute minimum about Britain) throw your novel aside, for example:

  1. I’m sure the Isle of Sheppey seemed like a great location for a seedy waterfront location, where the captain of a freighter could meet up with a shady contact in a olde worlde pub tucked away on a narrow cobblestone street. Meanwhile, London Medway actually looks like this.
  2. No one in Britain gives directions in “blocks” because we don’t have them.
  3. A pint of beer costs around £5. Two rounds of drinks for two people is not going to leave you with no change from that £50 you “put behind the bar”.
  4. Many shops, pubs, and bars won’t accept £50 notes anyway.
  5. I can only presume that RAF Mildenhall was used as a crucial plot point (and what is apparently the only RAF base in the UK) because the author had heard it mentioned by an acquaintance or read something about it. Mildenhall is, however, a USAAF base.
  6. The plot hinges on RAF fighters not being able to get to Scotland from Mildenhall fast enough. The UK has two RAF Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) stations which protect UK airspace : one is at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, and the other is at RAF Lossiemouth in, um, Scotland.
  7. It takes a good 3.5-4 hours to drive from Glasgow to Loch Ness.

Now I’m not going to name the book here (the above errors were all in one chapter) but you might notice that these are things that could be easily looked up online. I’ve just looked up that driving distance on Google Maps. It’s not difficult to look up how much a pint of beer costs in the UK, or what the Isle of Sheppey actually looks like.

Does it matter, in the end? Maybe not, and some mistakes will only be obvious to subject matter experts and not the majority of readers, but I think that to write a good story, as opposed to just a book, writers have to draw readers into the world they create and convince them to suspend their disbelief. Once the trust between writer and reader breaks down, the magic is gone.

Sloppy research always feels to me like the writer doesn’t really believe in their own story and is just churning it out. To quote Alleyn, look it up!


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