Weekly posts on Novel Writing with updates on the progress of my debut crime novel, Safe Hands, about an ageing safe cracker forced out of retirement for the sake of his dying wife and a son that hates his guts.
This week I’m talking about Research – how much to do and when to do it.
Unlocking My Main Character
My protagonist is Mickey Blake. He’s a safe cracker, but that term doesn’t really do justice to his particular skillset. You see, Micky doesn’t use tools, technology or explosives to break into safes. He uses only his bare hands and an incredible sense of touch to find the combination of any mechanical vault or safe. I know . . . it sounds far fetched doesn’t it? But there really are individuals who possess this ability. Jeff Sitar is a World Champion safe cracker and opens safes for a living. You can find footage on Youtube of him performing this amazing feat and it’s fascinating to see how he goes about it.
Although I did some basic research during the early stages of my first draft, I’m only now tackling the nitty-gritty stuff, like finding the make and model of specific vaults and adding more detail to my description of exactly how Mickey plies his trade.
When I’m in the white heat of first draft creativity, I don’t like anything to slow me down or give me a reason to procrastinate. Anyone who’s ever spent two and a half hours trawling the internet to find the name of a particular knife, gun or rope (oh, you write Crime too, eh?) will know what I mean. So I tend to write sentences like . . .
‘I lay my hands on the [SAFE NAME HERE], feel the cold steel and set to work on the dial.’
‘We’re all experts in something.’
That’s a quote from writer, William Shaw, a recent guest on The Joined Up Writing Podcast, who makes a point of finding an expert on whatever subject he happens to be writing about. You get so much more than if you just rely solely on YouTube and Google. William gave an example of speaking to a water management specialist to find a good place to hide a body in one of his novels! Latest guest, Rachel Amphlett has police officers she calls on to write her Kay Hunter series of novels. For my novel, I’ve been lucky enough to chat to a retired GCHQ employee, someone who has decades of dealing with the types of safes described in my book. In general, people love to talk about their job and will often welcome an interested writer with open arms.
It’s all in the detail . . . isn’t it?
Of course, the next pitfall to avoid is the dreaded INFO DUMP. It’s all very well scouring the internet, watching YouTube and interviewing your expert to glean all this lovely information but, please, for the sanity of your reader, DON’T PUT IT ALL ON THE PAGE! Less is more and it’s better to use one or two unusual tidbits to add colour and credibility, rather than an entire Wikipedia entry. Dan Brown, I’m looking at you.
Flesh on the bones
So, this week has been putting all of that into practice – adding depth and credibility to those technical scenes in a way that adds to the drama and suspense of the novel. It’s been great fun and I can’t wait to share the chapters with my critique group.
What about you? How do you approach your research? Do you like to be an expert before you even begin the first draft or do you discover as you go? Maybe you just like to play it fast and loose – why should The Truth ever get in the way of a good story?!
2 thoughts on “Novel Writing – Research: How much & when to do it …”
My research has always been meticulous, but that is the territory for non fiction and memoir. I reckon you’ve got the strategy and pitch spot on for a novel. One thing is certain – the more detail you put in, the deeper your research has to be. That can be good as it might highlight a technical issue or expose a flaws that could have slipped through.
I’ve listened to your WWII stuff, Keith, so know just how meticulous your research is and your work is all the more powerful because of it. A lot of the time, just knowing the information can be useful to your story, even if you hold back some of the nitty-gritty stuff from the reader.