Research and accurate writing

I read an interesting article in a magazine this morning about the importance of research and reflecting this effort in one’s writing. With non-fiction this is a given; without thorough research on the topic, the author’s credibility is at stake. You need to get it right or your readers will dismiss you instantly.

Research in relation to fiction is another matter, went the writer of the article. It was written from the perspective of an editor who has to deal daily with authors who often display sloppy research skills – or none at all. ‘It’s only fiction,’ they whine, ‘so it doesn’t matter if it’s not entirely accurate.’


One small inaccurate historical fact, one misplaced geographical detail, or an innocent cultural gaff can have readers slamming your book down in disgust or throwing it across the room. You need to get it right or your readers will rebel. You may lose a dedicated reader for life, and if you have contact details on your web site, you will get abusive emails.

The simplest of errors that can creep into a story are often innocent and not noticed by most readers. I came across a classic example recently in a novel written by a friend and a writer highly respected in her field. The story was set in the 1870s and the characters sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to the protagonist. Instantly this jarred in my mind. This song is a relatively recent composition, I thought. My research has revealed that it was first used in the early 1900s and was first published in 1912 (if my memory is correct). It became part of the popular culture decades later, much later than in the 1870s. [Note to my readers: please correct me if I’m wrong!] I know the author had done meticulous research for her novel, a fictional retelling of an historical event in Australia. This one slipped innocently under her radar – and that of her editor.

It can take just as much time to research a novel as it does to gather material for a non-fiction book, especially if you are setting your story in an unfamiliar location, time in history or culture. I found that research was crucial when writing my children’s novel set in Nepal. I’d been a visitor – a tourist – for about four weeks. Hardly enough time to absorb all the nuances needed to successfully write the story.

The opposite is also true. If you get it right you’ll have readers wanting more. That’s what we all crave, of course.

Good writing.

Review: Searching for the Secret River

Cover - Searching for the secret river

I have recently read Kate Grenville‘s historical novel The Secret River. You can read my review here.

Straight after finishing the novel I went on to read her follow up book Searching for the Secret River.

In this second book she goes into great detail about how she researched the novel. The story is based upon the life of her great-great-great grandfather, but she took the facts gleaned from family history and extensive research both in London and in Sydney over a five year period and transformed it into fiction. She has used fact as a broad brush in the hands of her imagination and the finished novel is brilliant. It gives the reader a much clearer view of life in the early years of settlement in the young Australian colony.

Searching for the Secret River is a fascinating expose on the thinking processes of one of our leading authors. Grenville takes us on a journey from the first inklings of an idea for a book through to the finished product. At first she was planning a non fiction book but she struck so many obstacles along the way that she changed tack completely, fictionalising it and letting her imagination run. I’m pleased she did.

While she does address some of the issues faced by all writers of fiction, this is not a handbook on writing. Sure, she does explain why she changed from first to third person, but generally it was the research that so intrigued her that she recounts in the first part of the book. Throughout she grapples with her attitudes, and those of the settlers, towards the Aboriginal people who would have lived in the Sydney area during the time in which she sets her novel. She was confronted by some very unsavoury discoveries. The reader of the novel is likewise confronted by some of the events of those days. Australian history is not always the clean, lovely accounts I read as a student many years ago.

While she has drawn from actual  historical records, her novel is not another version of history. ‘I was shameless in rifling through research for anything I could use,’ she writes, ‘wrenching it out of its place and adapting it for my own purposes… What I was writing wasn’t real, but it was as true as I could make it.‘ (Grenville p. 210)  She has been criticised for her (alleged)  misuse of history. I think she has achieved what most other writers struggle with – she has made history come alive for the reader.


  • Grenville, K, 2007, Searching for the Secret River. WF Howes, Leicester.

Writing a novel – a writer’s journal part 6

Where am I?

Over the years I have often read in books about writing: ‘Write what you know.’ Sound advice, something I’ve done on frequent occasions.

Drawing on your own life experiences can be a very powerful tool to enhance one’s writing. Sharing the familiar can ensure the integrity of your writing. It is, in a way, being true to yourself.

Drawing on what you know is an important consideration when writing a novel, for it will often determine the setting of your story. I usually set my stories and novels in Australia, and specifically South Australia. This is the part of the world I know best. It is the setting with which I feel most comfortable because I know it so well.

The importance of setting

What if you decide to write a story set in another country? Or another period of time? Or on another planet?

That was the dilemma facing me when I started out writing my current WIP, a novel for children set in Nepal. Sure, I had some knowledge of the country, but visiting as a tourist for four weeks is a far cry from being born and living all your life there. It can be even quite divorced from the impressions and experiences of someone who has lived and worked in that country for some years.

As a result of my problem, it was crucial that I either abandon the project or set to and do some thorough research. The concept of a young boy caught in the midst of a civil war would not go away. Stories have a habit of doing that. Layered upon that idea was the friendship he develops with an Australian expatriot boy whose father is working in Nepal.

I have no idea what it is like to live in another country. I have had to draw deep on being resourceful. I am rapidly devouring a series of books written by expatriate Australians, Canadians and Americans (among others) who have lived a significant portion of their lives in Nepal, and especially rural parts of the country. This has been a revelation to me, and I am fearful that the research will take over and prove more enjoyable than the writing of the novel.

It’s something I must guard against.

It’s a fascinating journey on which I’ve embarked.

Good writing.

Writing a novel – a writer’s journal part 5

Searching, searching, searching – doing Research

One of the interesting aspects of writing my current novel is the research that is involved. Normally, especially when writing short stories, I have a vague idea of the plot and characters and just blaze away with the first draft. During rewriting I will tidy up the story and make it work as a story. Editing often tightens up the plot and corrects any spelling and punctuation boo-boos. There is often little scope – or need – for much background research. I usually write what I know, or draw on my fertile imagination to fill in the gaps.

Not so with a novel. With my current work in progress – the novel I’m writing as my thesis paper for my MA – I am expected to show evidence of appropriate research. This is not the way I normally work, so it is stretching me beyond my normal practices. This is good, and is what doing my MA is all about. The writing of specific short stories, poems and essays has stretched my writing skills in amazing ways.

Doing background research for my novel has had a wonderful side effect. It is giving me a deeper understanding of the setting of my novel. More about that in a future post on this blog. All I will say now is that the novel, which is being written with children as my audience in mind, is set in Nepal during the recent civil war. Soaking myself in the culture of the country is proving to be a fascinating experience; so much so I am almost forgetting to attend to the actual writing.

All this research is helping me on my journey. It is a journey of discovery, not only of an amazing culture, but also of finding out the story of my main character. He is based upon a photo I took of a boy during a visit to Nepal in 2006. I wondered: What is his story? In discovering many aspects of the culture, the country, the people and the times in which my story is set, I am discovering this boy’s story. It is a growing, organic world; it may be fiction, but it is becoming a real place for me.

I now have to make sure that the fascination with the research does not take over and replace the writing.

For more articles in this series about writing a novel click here.

Good writing.