Do Your Research

“I’m not a pyschopath, Anderson, I’m a high functioning sociopath. Do your research.”
~ Sherlock, “A Study In Pink”, BBC (2010)

Always do your research. Otherwise you’ll find yourself being snapped at by Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and that would, obviously, be tragic. Although, I wouldn’t mind that much. I mean, fictional characters TALKING to me? Who spiked my drink and where do you get that stuff from?

As everybody knows, the key to writing a realistic and generally more interesting novel is to do research. It doesn’t matter whether your novel is a modern crime novel or a historical romance: you’re going to have something you need to look up. By the way, what is the difference between an Inspector and a Detective Inspector? Anyone who knows, leave a comment.

But I digress.

Research is very important, from world building to clothing to social hierarchies, and when I was asked to join in with St Mallory’s Forever I knew I was going to have to do some work. I had several issues to investigate:

  1. I didn’t know anything about life in a boarding school, and it wasn’t really fair to leave all of that to Charley, though we would probably go to her for reference on any point anyway.
  2. I had read very few mystery/crime/detective novels and didn’t know quite how they worked out. I’d also never written one.
  3. The idea of writing as blog posts or diary entries or letters was something that I hadn’t done in about six years and I couldn’t see how it could read as a coherent narrative without sounding forced or incongruous with what it was supposed to be (the blogs of three teenagers who all think they’re the only ones blogging about this and so cannot refer to each other’s posts or miss things out themselves… always a challenge!).

The first was relatively easy to solve. I asked Charley lots and lots of questions.

Actually, I didn’t have to ask her all that many, because when I first found out she was at a boarding school I interrogated her quite thoroughly, until she gave me a rough timetable and everything, just to shut me up (so, nothing’s changed…*grin*). I was also so intrigued I went on her school website and read up on it. That’s not stalkerish, because she went on mine too.

In addition to this, I’d been doing some research into vocational ballet training, such as the Royal Ballet School or the English National Ballet School. The RBS in particular has some really great information in their ‘documentation’ on the website, including approximate timetables, rules, and details of rooms. This was very helpful for getting an alternative perspective.

More recently, I was on a course with the Royal Artillery Band and while hanging out in the rest area of the band block, I was perusing the stacks of army-related magazines and found one entitled “The Service Parent’s Guide To Boarding Schools”. Although this didn’t give me particular information that I didn’t already know, it was very useful to look at what army families would want in a school, and what activities there were relating to that sort of world within schools. Since boarding schools are very often populated by a lot of ‘army brats’ (Charley’s words, not mine), this seemed like something to remember when working on St Mallory’s, as students whose parents are soldiers are quite likely to be at the school and should be mentioned.

So, the first one was pretty much nailed. I knew about timetables, uniforms, rules and regulations, dormitory layouts, House arrangements, sports activities, grades and Ofsted reports, and Forces discounts.

Next we had my lack of mystery reading / crime reading / detective stories etc. Easily solved. Work on St Mallory’s resumed right in the middle of my Sherlock obsession, just after series two of the BBC series had finished and I was consoling myself by reading all of the books, one after the other in totally the wrong order. I knew how detectives worked, obviously. We were doing well.

As for writing as blog posts, although my own are very rarely narratives, one of the blogs I read has some really good examples. The blog is My Pajama Days and she often writes her posts as mini stories almost, with dialogue and description. This was a really interesting style to study when considering how to work on this project. There are other blogs I could name, but to share them all would be to reveal what an odd combination of interests I have… ha ha!

It’s also something you learn by doing. I write for a blog. In fact, I write for three blogs – four if you count the guest posts I sometimes do for Mark Williams International. My own blog is Miriam Joy Writes, but I also have a book blog, Books – Lost and Found, and then there’s this. My blogging style now is very different from how it was when I started, so I’m developing a ‘voice’ that I hope comes through (although not too much!) in the characters we write.

Research can be anything, though. When writing one of my novels (still a WIP, after two years), I was constantly referring to ‘A Guide To Irish Mythology’. Another novel needed much highlighting of passages in ‘The Pagan Celts’, a great resource. I wrote tonnes of notes on old Celtic legends from several websites, too.

I’ve had conversations with ex policemen on NaNoWriMo forums about how the Force works, discussions with fencers and kick boxers about what it would be like to be a modern day knight and how much they’d have to train. I’ve read blogs and magazines in army barracks and the websites of private schools. I’ve badgered friends and strangers to tell me everything they know on a subject.

Yeah, it can make people think you’re weird, and yeah, your search engine history may get you arrested by the end of it (especially if you’re writing a crime or murder mystery novel), but research is important.

Next time you’re reading a blog that seems irrelevant, remember it might be useful as research in the future. When people have an interesting background or hobby, ask questions – even if you’re not writing about it at the moment! You never know. Either it’ll be stored in your mind palace (aaaand there goes another Sherlock reference. But it’s too awesome not to share) for later, or it’ll spark off an idea that’s so amazing you have to write it NOW.

When you’ve finished researching it, that is.

What’s the most difficult thing you’ve had to research, and how did you go about it? Do you like this stage of planning or does it hold you back? And can you please answer my Inspector/Detective Inspector question? It’s getting on my nerves.

— M

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10 thoughts on “Do Your Research

  1. Research is one of the most fun parts of writing. You’re constantly learning new things and, if you take it to the next level, experiencing new things as well. (I can’t wait for the next reenactment I go to with my mom.)

    As for the hardest topic I’ve had to research. Hands down that was medieval torture devices. I’m a bit squeemish to be gein with, so just reading about how they caused pain, disfigured and slowly killed people mad em want to scrub myself. It was made worse by having the character I was reserching it for reading it with me and telling me how he’d use it… *shudders*

    Unfortunatley I can’t Answer your question, but suspect it may be related to pay level, senority, or level of authority (and really those are generally closely linked).

    • Miriam Joy says:

      Yes, I can imagine that was nasty – and could have been one of those ‘delete your internet history!’ moments. There’s a thread on the NaNo forums about search engine history which can be quite hilarious to read.

  2. Although the British police are split up into myriad small “forces” UK policing has a basic hierarchy of Constable, Sergeant, Inspector, Chief Inspector, Superintendent, Chief Super, up the chain to Chief / Commissioner. Mostly with no comparison with the same terms where used in the US.

    Policing in UK generally divides into unformed and CID, where CID stands for Criminal Investigation Department, not Coppers In Disguise. An Inspector is a uniform rank, a Detective Inspector the equivalent CID rank.

    Our most difficult research by far was for Sugar & Spice, exploring the minds of those who would harm children. Not easy to write, and not easy to read, but it was the eleventh best-selling ebook in the UK last year and of course the top indie title.Obviously the research paid off!

    • Miriam Joy says:

      Obviously! But I can imagine that would be very hard. I find it quite hard to get into the mind of people who are very unlike myself, although in the past I’ve been worried about how easy it was to write Cormac, who was a particularly vicious fairy at one stage…
      So, is it okay to use Inspector / Detective Inspector relatively interchangeably? Certainly you hear people called DI something, but never just I. However, Detective Inspector takes forever to type. Inspector is easier. *sigh* Research is EFFORT.

  3. Charley R says:

    *nodnod* Research is exceedingly important – pity I only worked it out recently. It’s really easy to spot stories where no research has been done, and the results are truly shudder-worthy. Research alwasy seems like such a drag at the time but, really, it can be quite good fun.

    Oh, and don’t worry about the search engine results. I’m sure there are plenty of peeps out there – writers and non-writers alike – who are just as bad as we are, haha!

    Weirdest thing I’ve ever had to research was signs of ringworm, post-traumatic stress, and how likely someone was likely to survive after being vivisected while still fully conscious (all for one character from NaNo 2010)
    Never felt so evil, or so intrigued, in all my life xD

    • Miriam Joy says:

      Ouch!
      The piece of information I couldn’t find, no matter how much I looked, and couldn’t calculate easily, was how long it would take to travel on horseback from the Burren in Co. Clare, Ireland, to Tara, the seat of the old High Kings, in the 4th century (so, no roads and stuff). There just wasn’t the date available. That was annoying.
      Torture things are definitely ones that make people raise their eyebrows. With Cormac/Alex I just made it up. I was alarmed at how easy it was. Then again, I was pretty mad at Alex’s alter ego at the time (you know who I mean), so ….

      • Charley R says:

        Ah, I see … it’s always more annoying when the thing you can’t find an answer for isn’t very exciting, and therefore you are required to spend more time researching it.

        Hehe, torture and murder and chaos-causing is fun *grins*

      • On the horses, from some of my research I came up with the following speeds for horses:
        Horse, 15 mph
        Horse Fast, 20 mph
        Horse Night, 8 mph
        Horse Slow, 10 mph

        You’d have to translate to kilometers per hour, and if there are no roads, use the slower speed. Then you can estimate the distance, guess how long they would travel per day and voila! get your answer (or send me the distance and I’ll give it to you *grin* as I have the spreadhseet all set up ready to plug in the numbers and go.) :}

        • Miriam Joy says:

          Why would I do kilometres? I’m a mph kind of person 😉 There are no roads and there is thick undergrowth. I’m imagining it would probably be about 10mph tops, which is I think what I put. Then I measured the Burren to Tara on a map with a bit of string and the distance thing, but of course Tara isn’t quite accurate as it’s not entirely there any more. And then I worked something out. I think it took them like a week or something. I can’t really remember – it was a NaNo novel that I haven’t edited yet! =D

          Gosh… you do like your spreadsheets, don’t you?

          • Yes, I do *blush* I have more fun putting them together than I do using them… *grin*

            It’s the organizational and attention to detail part of me, which are the required skills fro the job I have. :}

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