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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Mini-seminars

Big Book Chain Chat #17: Is it possible to do too much research?

Craig Higginson - 2010-11-03

I thought I’d raise something that concerns most writers but is seldom discussed in any detail: the matter of research. How important is it? One can clearly do too little. Can one also do too much?

Some years ago, while I was working at a bookshop in Fulham Road, London, a greying, benevolent-looking man shuffled in. He bought some books, and when I swiped his card I noticed his name: Peter Shaffer. I asked him if he was the same man who had written Equus and Amadeus. He said he was. We got into a long discussion about his writing process on Equus. Famously, he got the idea when driving through the countryside with a friend. The friend mentioned a farm where a boy had one day gouged out the eyes of some horses. Shaffer didn’t ask anything else about this, nor did he try to locate the original story. He had felt the spark that led to Equus – and he didn’t need the actual facts of the real story to come and interfere with his burning new idea. He told me that he hadn’t done any research into psychoanalysis before writing – in spite of the fact that the play is about the disturbed boy and his analyst. Having written a first draft, he then did do some research, however, and found that what he had written was about 80 percent accurate. He adjusted the other 20 percent.

The implication of Shaffer’s anecdote is that we often know more and understand more than we give ourselves credit for. When we rely on the written accounts of others, we are giving over the vital act of imagining that is central to the creation of any artwork. Instead of writing out of a deep necessity, we find ourselves involved in the act of cutting and pasting and editing the ideas of others.

Plagiarise is a term first found in the 17th century. It meant to kidnap, seduce or plunder. Still fundamental to the word is the idea of theft – of taking what is not yours and passing it off as your own. Yet the problem facing all writers – and especially those of traditional historical fiction – is how to use other texts without recycling them and then passing them off as your own.

My next novel – which will be published by Picador Africa early next year – is a work of historical fiction. Called The Landscape Painter, it moves between 1897 and 1900 in southern Africa and between 1947 and 1948 in post-war London. I had two very particular historical periods to research. How was I to bring those periods to life without plundering already-written texts?

My solution for the first draft was to do the bare minimum of research (although I had to know the basic sequence of events in the Anglo-Boer War, for example, because I couldn’t mess with those) and then to try and imagine the rest. I had lived in Hampstead (the location of the London narrative) through several winters, and I had lived and spent time in Johannesburg and KwaZulu-Natal (the locations of the southern African narrative). So I wrote a first draft rapidly and freely, knowing that I was no doubt getting a great deal wrong. But I also found my version of what it might have been like to live in those places during those times. I later did a whole lot of research into post-war London and realised that I’d got some basic realities very wrong. The extent of the rationing and the bitter cold of the previous winter, for instance, had barely been touched upon. But I also got a great deal of it right – like the children making snowmen and using sticks for the noses because carrots were so scarce.

While writing the first draft I also made special trips to each of the locations mentioned in the novel. Even though some of them had changed radically, others had hardly changed at all. I went up Spioenkop in the same week that the battle had taken place (albeit many years later). I observed what birds were in the skies, what plants were in fruit, how the ants flitted across the earth, what colour the rocks were, and so on. I got a wealth of information that was never mentioned in any of the historical accounts I had read – or would later read.

I also had an interesting experience while writing a previous novel – The Hill. Here the protagonist, Andrew, has an unusually close relationship with nature. He runs away from boarding school and into the Drakensberg, and soon the animals he encounters develop particular meanings for him. When I’d completed a first draft, I read as much as I could on San/Bushman mythology in the British Library and found that much of what Andrew had felt and experienced was there in their mythology – with different animals having different ethical resonances. The signs had endured in the landscape, and Andrew (who was a version of myself) had read them in a way that had remarkable parallels with the way the San had read them thousands of years before.

I suppose the provocation that I’m sending out is that research should, in some sense, be a secondary activity. We are always told – especially by those who are not writers – to write what we know. This means that we simply write out of the familiar, the already-known. We confine ourselves to a self-reflecting solipsism. But one of the great capacities of fiction – whether we are talking about novels, plays or films – is that it gives both writer and reader/ audience the opportunity to imagine other worlds – worlds that are not their own. What matters is not what we write but how we write about it. Point of view is central, and so is doing enough research to make what we write pass as authentic or credible. But too much research early on – the consuming and recycling of already-written material – can be hugely inhibiting, and even damaging in the end.

When writing narratives set in the past, we tend to over-signify the period – especially when we’ve done all that research! We work so hard at researching that we can’t resist the urge to put it all in. In his book The Shifting Point1 Peter Brook discusses his legendary production of King Lear with Paul Schofield in 1962. What struck me in Brook’s account was exactly this idea. He suggested that in many plays and films set in the past, the historical period is made so authentic that it draws too much attention to itself. Brook’s approach regarding the design in this production (later turned into a film) was to do the bare minimum. He wanted to give enough detail to ignite the audience’s imagination, but he wanted the observer to fill in the gaps. He also believed that this clearing away of the inessential would help to make the more important elements (like plot and relationships) clearer:

The aim of the setting is to produce a degree of simplification which enables the things that matter to be important … With Lear (…) one has to withdraw everything possible (…) All the costumes we have simplified so that only the essential remains. When in a Shakespeare production you have thirty or forty equally elaborate costumes, the eye is blurred and the plot becomes hard to follow (…) It is interesting to hear people saying, “How clear the play seems!” without realising that the secret was related to the clothes.2

One doesn’t open a novel by Anne Tyler or Roddy Doyle and find sentences like “He got into his A160 Mercedez-Benz with leather seats, power steering and a Matrix tracking device.” In a bad historical or “period” novel, however, we might find a sentence that reads, “He got into his 1896 Hansom four-wheeler with spring suspension and plush crimson seats.” Because the historical novel is displaced in time, we feel we need to describe each detail – paint the picture for the reader. But this is to undermine the richness of the collective memory the reader brings to a book, play or film. As I say – we know much more than we think we know. A good work of fiction should demand that we tap into our own imaginations in order to bring the piece to life. The audience and reader need to be engaged and provoked in a way that is not all surface detail and local colour.

Once your world has been established, however, more research becomes essential. With The Landscape Painter, the new bits I discovered through more reading became like brightly coloured gems I could sew into the already rich fabric of what I’d imagined.

So – if I’d like you to come away from these paragraphs with anything, it’s perhaps a greater appreciation of our collective memory and our imaginative power. What Wallace Stevens once called “the ultimate elegance: the imagined land”.


1 Peter Brook, The Shifting Point, Methuen, London, 1987.

2 Ibid, pp 89-90


Craig Higginson is a novelist, playwright and theatre director. His plays include Dream of the Dog and The Girl in the Yellow Dress (both published by Oberon Books). His novels include The Hill (Jacana), Last Summer (Picador Africa) and The Landscape Painter (which is due for publication in 2011).