How Much Research Is Too Much?

The Arts


I remember reading Dorothy L Sayers’ ‘The Nine Tailors’ and thinking, ‘Ms Sayers has definitely fallen into the research trap.’ The murder mystery requires a knowledge of campanology (bell-ringing), and is crucial the plot (there’s a cypher connected to change-ringing, and someone is deafened to death by bells) and although it’s a great novel she gives the research to us in vast undigested chunks.

SF writers often favour science over fiction, and Ted Chiang’s original short story ‘The Story of your Life’, which became the film ‘Arrival’, is a schematic piece structured like a dense equation. As such it is repetitive and to the layman periodically incomprehensible, filled with graphs and physics research. Hollywood did what it sometimes does best, humanizing the tale, sharpening it and giving it clarity without sacrificing the chamber-piece aesthetics. It’s a tricky act to pull off in SF, as ‘Interstellar’ proved. When critics ask why more hard SF classics aren’t filmed, the answer is that they don’t have a director who knows what to leave out.

As someone who is constantly asked how I manage to research so much history and arcane law,  I explain that 1. I live next to the British Library, 2. I get lost in research but also talk to knowledgable people and 3. I’m naturally curious.

But I’ve fallen victim to the ‘research-dump’ in the past. It has taken me a very long time to develop the conversational style that imparts knowledge.

I now have a new problem, because next year’s Bryant & May novel, ‘Hall of Mirrors’, is set in 1969, a period during which I was still at school. I knew about ‘Swinging London’ only as a vague concept in magazines, and much of what I’ve read now contradicts those impressions. So where does the truth lie?

The rule must be that the writer must deviate from research when it starts to bore. We’re fiction writers – it means we can make stuff up, so long as it ameliorates the story and feels authentic.

Examples of books with lots of research, good or bad?


6 comments on “How Much Research Is Too Much?”

  1. Rachel Green says:

    I remember John Wyndham’s “Chocky” taught me to do mathematics in binary when I was about ten.

  2. Vivienne says:

    I always felt Patricia Cornwell’s books were rather forensic medicine research-led – or computer stuff from Scarpetta’s niece. Absolutely agree about the Nine Tailors including a bit too much information, although I was really intrigued about the mathematical side of the bell-ringing changes which was quite a revelation. But was Sayers’ father not a vicar and she grew up absorbing this stuff? Does that count as research? Think I still have a tendency to believe writers write about what they know: Dickens being poor, Hardy in Wessex, Le Carre and his spies. When did the change come?

  3. admin says:

    I think your background starts your interest in researching further.

  4. Roger says:

    It depends on how the research was done – I was much more interested in the campanology than the plot in The Nine Tailors.
    Perhaps the best research dumps are Carroll’s Alice books – the research and its implications are slipped in so casually that it’s only when you think about it that you realise what they are.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    I reread the Nine Tailors often, usually during the Christmas period – and this year we even had ice and snow to complement it. You don’t have to know the details of change ringing to follow the plot, only if you are hoping to solve the mystery along with Peter. I have since been told (by whom? when?) that no matter how long the peal you can’t be killed by the sound of the bells. I wonder where her research came for that – perhaps a warning from her father about not going up when the bells were being rung?
    Have you heard that the London firm of bell founders (in Whitechapel?) that’s been around for 500 years will likely close? The current owners don’t have a family member interested in carrying on and the market is getting smaller all the time so finding a buyer is quite an iffy thing.
    I think a larger problem is the enthusiast who tries to put all of his knowledge whether necessary to the plot or not into his book. I imagine the problem would be most noticeable in self published books since most publishers would remove lists of part numbers, style variants, or other unnecessary details and at most put them into an addendum of some sort. I read one last fall about Imperial Airways, a book I looked forward to, but which was littered with radio details that advanced nothing and just got in the readers’ way.

  6. Joel says:

    Research, bloody research… In the late 90s I went to my first Arvon residential course, on crime writing. One of the tutors was Val McDermid, and she covered research in about fifteen seconds. “Three facts and you’re an expert…” [meaning the reader will believe you from then on] then she added in one of the best asides I’ve ever witnessed. “It’s picking those three from the million you’ve listed is the hard part.”

    They may not be her exact words, but I’ve never forgotten them. I still have the notes from that course, often consulting them. They might, yet, one day, let me be published. Until then I keep keyboarding and scribbling away.

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