How Important Is Research When Writing Fiction? by Kathy Stewart
As I was writing my crime novel manuscript, Clear Island Murder, I was faced with some problems I hadn’t anticipated: I simply didn’t know enough about some aspects of my subject.
I’d purposely set it on the Gold Coast because I know the place. I’d also given my main protagonist a South African background, because I know that place and its people as well. But as my story progressed I realised there were many aspects about which I was unsure, from how the police service works to what type of gun would be used, and which would be common to both countries.
I also needed to know exactly where each of my characters lived and make the timing of their trips from A to B credible. I needed to know what their houses were like, what professions they were in, what sights, smells and sounds they would encounter at each location. But these are fairly standard complications that most fiction writers face, so I was prepared for them.
Then I hit some real hurdles. How exactly do you abseil down a vertical cliff? And, more importantly, how do you get back up to the top again? I’ve never been one for heights, much like Scott in my story, and the prospect of doing real research such as actually abseiling down a vertical cliff made my knees tremble and my palms sweat. No. I couldn’t do that. Then Steve Rossiter gave me some really good advice: “Look on YouTube. You’re bound to find a number of videos there that will show how to abseil and what equipment is used.”
My pulse slowed. He was right. YouTube proved to be a font of information.
But then I had the climactic scene taking place on the top of Q1, a building which stands 322 metres high, is 78 storeys and is the 19th tallest building in the world, while also being the tallest residential building in the world – and it just happens to be on the Gold Coast. (Guess who has done her research?)
The problem was, I had never been there. And I knew that this was one aspect of my research that I would have to do in person.
So up the tower we went and peered out over the vista of the Gold Coast as the sun set over the hinterland and the lights of the city began to blink on. It turned out to be a magical evening, sitting in our glass eyrie and watching the antlike cars crawl the roads in ribbons of white and red light, while we dined in style at the restaurant.
And this was all in the name of research.
But the fact is that I did find out what I needed to know and my story will be the stronger for it. In fact, it was essential. I simply could not have written a realistic scene without having done the research.