I loath doing research. It doesn’t interest me in the slightest. Getting abstruse details right seems an irrelevance in a novel. People don’t read books to learn facts; it is the emotional truths that count. But certain fiction writers – almost all men; make of that what you will – have a fetishistic obsession with useless detail. A character can’t climb into a car without a two paragraph lesson about the workings of an internal combustion engine. When it comes to the mechanics of a semi-automatic machine gun, they can wax rhapsodic for pages.
I understand this need writers have to share the information they’ve gathered along the way. After all, why do the research, if you don’t use it? Well, because it’s boring.
In my last book, Wonderful You, the principal character worked in daytime television, and I made a specific point of not finding out anything about the industry, because it didn’t matter in the slightest to the story I was telling. However, research is a necessary evil with a historical novel. You don’t want to write something that couldn’t possibly have happened. But that doesn’t mean you have to make your readers suffer. While I was writing Paradise I read a series of textbooks called “A History of Missouri”, and they were as dry and dreary as the title suggests. I needed to do it, to give me a sense of historical context. I discovered more about crop production in Missouri in the 1930s than I ever wanted to, but it would have been a very bad idea to put any of it in the book.
The trick, of course, is to wear your research lightly. Your readers most likely don’t want to be lectured to, and besides, nobody likes a show-off. Obviously it helps if the material relates directly to the story you’re telling. For example, Prohibition, the 1918 influenza epidemic, the Depression and the Vietnam War (to take a few examples) are all episodes which have a material impact on the characters in Paradise, and consequently I had no choice but to delve into these in some detail. It can be difficult to achieve the right balance between the character’s story and the larger narrative. My approach has been to write all the historical stuff I think is necessary and then to pare it down remorselessly when editing, so that there’s almost nothing left. Actually, come to think of it, that’s not a bad approach to take to writing in general.