Sherlock’s Approach to Research

Early this year, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts launched its interview series, In Conversation, with Benedict Cumberbatch. (Good choice!) Something he said about how he researches a new role struck a chord with me:

“[Research is] a security blanket. Not all of it — very little of it ends up on screen, often. And it’s just to take a little bit more possession of the extraordinariness of what I’m being asked to do. Because it’s so far removed from my experience. It just gets me a little bit more… It just gives me a little bit more courage to pretend to be something I’m so far from.”

cumberbatch[Watch the quoted clip, or the whole interview, here. Video will play automatically in a new window.]

I literally couldn’t have said it better, because I’m not Benedict Cumberbatch! But I feel the same way about novel research. Obviously, before you start writing about something you don’t know much about, like say computer hacking — the topic of my next book, The Silence of Six — you have to find out more about it. But the tricky thing about research is you don’t necessarily know what information you will need before you start outlining or writing the book. The natural solution is to learn everything you can, just like Sherlock, but as Cumberbatch said so sexily: most of that isn’t going to end up on the page, and it shouldn’t.

A “security blanket” is a perfect metaphor for the way I research, because I don’t feel comfortable enough to start a new project until I’ve read a bit about it — even if I’m just going to be making things up. Research also gives me a better idea of the kinds of things I’ll need to learn in more detail to make the book as authentic as possible, and the more I learn, the more ideas I have that will make the book even better.

My research usually starts off on the internet (where else?). I’ll probably start by visiting Wikipedia and various websites to get a basic introduction to a particular topic. This usually leads me to books and movies and documentaries that they’ve referenced, which soon become my primary sources, and I’ll start looking up fiction books on the same topic.

Some of my research books for The Silence of Six.

Some of my research books for The Silence of Six.

I know a lot of writers don’t or can’t read books similar to what they’re writing, because they’re worried about being influenced by them too much, but I find it helpful to see what’s out there. They help me discover the right tone for my book. It’s good to know how other writers have approached the same ideas, so I can avoid duplicating them and, maybe so I can try to do better. For instance, many technothrillers in film and print treat hacking like magic; a few minutes in front of a keyboard, and a hacker is deep in the Pentagon’s most top secret files, when in reality, a hack of that magnitude would take months, or much longer. In fact, before many hackers try to break into a facility or system, they do research too!

Research is one of my favorite parts of writing. I love to learn new things, and since my school days are long behind me, researching new stories introduces me to all sorts of topics I wouldn’t have found out about otherwise. Research can also be fun — it gives you “permission” to read a bunch of books and watch TV shows and movies, while still considering it a productive part of writing. I finally started watching the show Leverage as inspiration for some of the infiltration scenes in The Silence of Six. I got to read Michelle Gagnon’s PERSEF0NE series and Robin Benway’s Also Known As books for great examples of how to write computer scenes and tense, action-filled chases. I watched The Fifth Estate, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange (but sadly I can’t recommend it, for reasons that have nothing to do with his performance). I also probably ended up on some NSA and FBI watchlists for Googling things like “How to hack into a Macbook,” “How to hack a car,” and how to do Google searches like that anonymously.

Meet_linus_bigThe danger of research is you can get a little too attached to that security blanket. There’s so much to read and watch, you can feel like maybe you’ll never be ready to start writing that book. You cram too much of your research into the book, so your editor starts giving you notes like, “It feels like there’s a subplot about Wi-Fi.” (All I can say about that is Wi-Fi is fascinating! And there are lots of ways to exploit it.) When research turns into procrastination, it’s time to put those books aside and start writing, confident that you know enough to get through a first draft, and you can always do more focused research later when you need it. Just highlight the sections that need to be filled in on your manuscript (I like to mark them “TK”), and keep going. And try to avoid falling into another Wikipedia spiral as you look up those missing details!

I’m in this exciting research phase with my next project. All I’ll tell you about it is that Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry, and The Lost by Sarah Beth Durst are on my reading list. I actually think these books aren’t at all similar to what I want to write, and this project shouldn’t need much research, but they’re going to get my subconscious thinking about the story so when I do start writing, I’ll feel ready.

Do you like researching your stories? How do you go about it? Do you like Benedict Cumberbatch?


11 Responses to Sherlock’s Approach to Research

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Aug 26 2014 at 9:11 am #

    I’m not super-big on the research, since my stories are more about people than plot, and I tend to write fantasy. To me research is more to maintain plausibility than to be included in the story. Mostly I have the story first and I do the research I find I need to do so what I say doesn’t sound stupid. We don’t want our readers forcibly ejected from our story by something they know is unworkable, and that happens to me far too often, even if the writer gets it right. Usually excessive detail screams to me that somehow the plot will turn on this bit of arcana.
    I recently rewrote an episode of a TV show for my fanfiction epic, and rewatched the episode to get the pacing and some of the dialog right. They used the phrase ‘cyclomatic complexity’ in a completely incorrect way. It sounded good for the camera and I doubt too many people would bother to pursue it the way I did, but I don’t want anything I have my characters do or say make people reach for the Wikipedia machine.

    • Eugene Sep 14 2014 at 3:19 pm #

      That kind of rigor is important, even when an incorrect reference may only be noticed by a couple of experts. Obviously mistakes happen, but hopefully we can catch as much as possible before it goes to print. My copy editor on my latest book caught some amazing geographical mistakes because she checked a map for every location I mentioned. That’s some excellent research right there!

  2. Pam Aug 26 2014 at 9:19 am #

    When I was thinking about the second book in my UF Series, and finally decided that the characters would take a quick jaunt to the past in China, I read a couple of books on the Boxer Rebellion as this was the period they would land in. You are right, not much will make it into the book, but the knowledge alone gave me more confidence in the writing than going in blind. A bonus was, I very much enjoyed reading about that piece of historical time.

    • Eugene Sep 14 2014 at 3:24 pm #

      I love time travel stories! 🙂 They do require a lot of research though. For me, that kind of reading often prompts new ideas for the plot and characters that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

  3. Becki Aug 26 2014 at 1:51 pm #

    My research is often in the form of immersing myself in the genre I’m writing, to get a feel for the themes and styles whilst also discovering what’s already been done. My worst nightmare is labouring over a story and falling in love with it, only to find out that you’ve managed to copy someone else’s work without ever having read it. And if you’re interested in your story (why would you be writing it if otherwise?) you tend to be interested in the background, so research is fun and enlightening.

    I definitely agree with the fact that very little of it ends up on the page, but the plots and characters feel so much more solid when there’s research behind them. The readers may not know all the ins and outs of the topic you’re writing about, but they can feel that it’s real.

    (And Benedict Cumberbatch is awesome. His Sherlock is absolutely brilliant.)

    • Eugene Sep 14 2014 at 3:28 pm #

      My worst nightmare is labouring over a story and falling in love with it, only to find out that you’ve managed to copy someone else’s work without ever having read it.

      Mine too! Sometimes I do wonder if it’s better to have plausible deniability in case someone suggests you’ve borrowed an idea. “Oh, I’ve never read that.” *sniff* I mean, that seems to have worked for Suzanne Collins and the uproar over The Hunger Games being similar to Battle Royale.

      But I’ve gotten better at accepting the fact that people are bound to have similar ideas, and two writers with the same plot/premise are likely going to produce two very different stories.

  4. Elissa Aug 26 2014 at 2:54 pm #

    I tend to write about things I know extremely well already. I guess that’s my security blanket. But inevitably, something comes up that I don’t know all that much about, and that’s when I do my research. I just know that if I get some little detail wrong, that’s the one thing that will crop up in every review. “The book was good for the most part, but then she wrote this absolutely ridiculous thing that made me throw it against the wall.”

    Benedict Cumberbatch is second only to Martin Freeman. 😉 They both amaze me.

    • Eugene Sep 14 2014 at 3:31 pm #

      My writing group is also a terrific security blanket for stuff like that. There’s a lot I don’t know, but collectively, the members of my group have an amazing assortment of knowledge. Sometimes it scares me, like when someone knows enough about guns to tell me which make and model my protag would use and what the recoil would be like…

  5. Regency Aug 28 2014 at 12:13 pm #

    I love research! I know the Wikipedia spiral well, but I think I love crawling into the dusty corners of the internet even more. There’s always a dedicated website for everything. My Diigo account is rife with links on architecture, gemstones, and food from around the world. I live for learning and grad school hasn’t killed that yen yet.

    This is a great post and not just because of the inimitable, adorkable, jaguar in a cello Benedict Cumberbatch. Thanks for sharing!

    • Eugene Sep 14 2014 at 3:38 pm #

      Thank you! I freaking love that I can find out about almost anything online. I haven’t heard of Diigo before, so thanks for mentioning it. That looks really cool! We could probably do another post on research tools. I mostly use Pocket to save articles I come across, and sometimes I import them to Scrivener or download the webpages locally.

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