Research and me – a love-hate relationship

I usually enjoy spending time on research. These days, with the internet, it’s so much easier than it used to be and yet somehow a bit more tricky, with lots of unattributed information out there and annoying gaps too. Then there is the constant fear that you’ll overload your novel with information just because you’ve researched something.

I became slightly worried about the overload aspect with my most recent novel ‘The Four Seasons Quest’ * because while I was in the middle of writing it I read a book that was a kind of research red herring and immediately felt so enthusiastic that I had to incorporate some of the information in the novel. I came across the book when I was checking a fairly unimportant fact about where Lyons Corner Houses were located and specifically whether there had been one near either Euston or King’s Cross station (there wasn’t, as far as I’ve been able to establish). The book was ‘A Computer Called LEO: Lyons Tea Shops and the world’s first office computer’ by Georgina Ferry (link on Amazon UK: it’s one of the few non-fiction books I have on my Kindle! I was particularly interested in this because it reminded me of my early days as a computer programmer, when Leos were still in daily use in the organisation I worked for then.

I did find a way to work some of my research into the novel, as part of an attempt to make my heroine Flora settle into a ‘proper job’ just as the hero, Oliver, seems to be abandoning the traditional workplace in favour of an uncertain artistic career. I’m not sure how this happened. At the end of ‘The Lion and Unicorn Quest’ I fondly imagined they would continue to run some sort of investigation agency together for several novels to come, but in my experience characters have a way of overturning all my plans for them.

Anyway, I didn’t come here to complain about characters who develop minds of their own, although I’m sure I will be doing plenty of that before too long once I get started on ‘Pitkirtly VII’ in November. More about research.

In case I didn’t have enough to do, I’m now in the middle of a story (15,000 words – plenty of time to finish it before November) set in 1909 featuring a train, a confidence trickster, two suffragettes and an artist. I fondly imagined I had done all the research I needed for this when I started to write it as a short play some time ago, but it turns out that the action needs to take in the Edinburgh suffragettes’ march of 1909 as well as everything else. I did think I knew everything I needed to know about this – having taken part in a reconstruction of it a few years ago – but of course when it came to writing about it I found all sorts of important things missing. Fortunately I’ve found some fairly reliable online sources to plunder for this.

Suffragettes march
Suffragettes march 2009

*For anyone who has missed this, here are the links to ‘The Four Seasons Quest’ on various sites:



2 Replies to “Research and me – a love-hate relationship”

  1. I love research Cecilia but I still try to do most of it from initial sources guided by experts rather than on the internet. It’s time consuming but much more rewarding. I found myself going down blind alleys with internet research, more by omission and the temptation as a writer to fill in the gaps….incorrectly…. Internet first then check…that’s my motto when I can….I’ll look forward to your story set in 1909. Good luck

  2. Thanks for commenting Diana. I agree that original sources are probably the ideal. Of course I’ve completely oversimplified in this blog post! – I usually try to consult as many sources as possible and as far as facts are concerned I tend to give more credence either to ‘official’ sources or to what seem like first-hand accounts of some kind. An example of what I mean by an official source is the Met Office site that gives details of the weather every day since goodness knows when. However, some apparently good sources have inaccuracies in them – my great-aunt was arrested for suffragette activities and I recently discovered her prison record has her name so completely mis-spelled that it’s only because we know it was her from other sources that we can tell she was there at all.
    On the other hand, of course, it’s in the nature of fiction not to be completely true (or even slightly true in many cases) so there is always scope for artistic licence too.
    Sorry about lengthy reply – day off work!!

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