How much research in fiction?

You may also have seen that Irish author John Boyne (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas; The Thief of Time) has good-naturedly admitted to a bit of lazy research in his latest novel A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom (Doubleday). In seeking an historical method for dyeing clothes red, he inadvertently borrowed a recipe that included ‘the tail of red lizalfos and ‘Hylian mushrooms’ from, apparently, the 2017 Nintendo game Zelda Breath of the Wild. Boyne admitted the error resulted from a lazy ‘Google’, saying in response: ‘I’ll leave it as it is. I actually think it’s quite funny and you’re totally right. I don’t remember but I must have just Googled it… Hey, sometimes you just gotta throw your hands up and say “Yup! My bad.”

Worryingly, there are numerous ways in which one’s research can fall short.

When it comes to historical books and passages, unconscious anachronisms present easy traps to fall into. Shakespeare was known carelessly to toss anachronistic references into his plays – mentions of striking clocks and doublets (in Julius Caesar); to the premature existence of the University of Halle-Wittenberg (in Hamlet); to billiards (Antony and Cleopatra); and ‘dollars’ (MacBeth) are well-documented examples. Presumably, the prolific playwright sacrificed chronological accuracy for entertainment.

In terms of the need to get details and evidence right, popular US author Dan Brown, for one, has often been criticised for his books being poorly researched, particularly having claimed, daringly, in the preface to best-seller The da Vinci Code (2003) that ‘All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.’ Now there’s an invitation to lovers of accuracy (note I didn’t say ‘pedants’ – oops)… The Louvre Pyramid features 673 panes of glass not 666! Leonardo’s canvas for The Virgin of the Rocks stands at 6.5 feet tall, not five foot! The five linked rings of the modern Olympic Games are in no way a hidden homage to the goddess Aphrodite… And so on. (Brown must be crying all the way to the bank at this point).

More recently, New Zealander Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2017) is another best-selling book criticised for inaccuracy, including by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, despite the author’s claims that “Ninety-five per cent of it is as it happened; researched and confirmed.”

Opinion appears divided on whether writers have a responsibility to be as truthful and accurate as far as possible in the representation of historical facts—or whether those ‘facts’ (which may not always be concrete in the first place) may be altered a little in order to get a story across to the reader. Morris, for instance, countered criticism of her book by saying, in The New York Times: “The book does not claim to be an academic historical piece of non-fiction, I’ll leave that to the academics and historians.”

However, lazy assumptions and stereotyping can be another downfall, and for these there is less excuse. For instance, the Iraqi-Welsh journalist and writer Ruqaya Izzidien (The Watermelon Boys) last year launched the website Muslim Impossible to review fictional Muslim and Arab characters in literature as well as film and TV. She will note where characters are stereotyped and, particularly where female, are ‘exoticized’. In one review, for example, Izzidien writes: ‘…the Arabs in The Moroccan Girl [by Charles Cummings] are a foreigner’s idea of clichéd Arabs, and excruciatingly so.”

So how much research should you do for your writing – or should you expect as a reader?

agence-olloweb-d9ILr-dbEdg-unsplashWhen writing in a contemporary setting, we can use, a variety of sources – images, maps, documents, books and articles, and have the option of speaking to people and visiting places first hand. Writing historical fiction, however, we cannot do the same degree of field research. I myself have relied on a range of sources, academic articles, style magazines of the period, old travel books (as noted in a previous post: Take you there), places selling antiques and vintage items. And, yes, in addition to the library, I do often use our friend Dr Google—as a starting point to the search. Suggestions now pop up in my inbox – do I want to read an article on Ottoman Maps of the Empire’s Arab Provinces, 1850s to the First World War? On the Aesthetics of the Ninetenth-century Deathbed Scene or Tableau Vivant or Narrative Suspension in Masoch’s Venus im Pelz? Quite obviously, I am researching the late 19th century, across a wide range of areas—but I cannot read everything exhaustively.

Old guidebooks are a favourite source

I mean, I enjoy the research, but where to stop? For all my intentions to be thorough, I am sure I end up making mistakes. Nothing as thundering as a landmark yet to be built nor invention still to be developed (the Eiffel Tower standing in Paris of the 1880s, for instance, or the ballpoint pen), but little doubt there will be errors in details of dress, societal norms and manners, research notwithstanding.

Within her guidance on why and how to undertake research, author and creative writing tutor Joanna Penn also includes advice on when to stop. “Remember, research can become a form of procrastination and the more you research, the more information you will find to include,” she warns. So true. One risk lies in finding a juicy fact and shoe-horning it into the text quite superfluously. “Therefore,” Penn says, once you have enough information to continue, “then maybe you should stop and do some writing about it.” She also suggests giving yourself a time limit noting “You can always do additional research as you write, but the important thing is that the book is underway.” I quote her extensively here because the advice appears so sound and sensible.

If you write, what’s your approach to research for your work?
As a reader, do you notice historical and other inaccuracies – if so, do they bother you?


Alison Flood, ‘John Boyne accidentally includes Zelda video game monsters in novel’ in The Guardian, 03 August 2020.
Joanna Penn, ‘How To Research Your Novel … And When To Stop’ on The Creative Penn, 18 January 2017.
Feature image from Pixabay
Magnifying glass Agence Olloweb on Unsplash.

16 thoughts on “How much research in fiction?

  1. I wonder if anyone picked up on Shakespeare’s mistakes at the time? Presumably not the rabble in the audience. 0 History itself gets facts wrong, but that is no excuse for not checking facts. I don’t think I would want to write an historical novel, even though I love history; the prospect of research seems daunting. Writing in the present is also daunting as things change so quickly, but we can easily check on line when the millennium bridge was opened or reopened. Presumably there will always be pedantic readers, perhaps they are also pedantic viewers like the ones who write to the Radio Times and say ‘Everyone knows the 24th regiment had four buttons on their jacket, not three!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I suspect Shakespeare had little idea of the mistakes and cared even less, he and the audience being intent on entertainment. Who knew it would all be picked apart centuries later! One of the daunting things, I think, about producing historical fiction is that someone will always find the inaccuracies, as you say. Obviously, it shouldn’t be a case of ‘the more historically accurate the better’ for historical fiction, but…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ps. I saw a comedy once where a messenger arrived with great fanfare to bring news to the king ‘Sire, the one hundred year war has started!’

    Liked by 1 person

  3. If it’s fiction, then accuracy and facts take a backseat to logically said and put. You can’t say, the phone rang when it’s the year 1360, but if you want to write something that happened in the past, make it logical. I don’t mind when it’s not accurate, as long as it’s not a blatant disregard, and yes, that includes fantasy too. When I wrote my trilogy – urban fantasy – I tried making everything, even the magical aspects, sound logical. Because, well, common sense prevails. And I’m proud to say that a few of the reviews I received mentioned how my protagonist makes sound and logical decisions, and how although it’s fantasy, there’s a touch of common sense and reason in the story.
    As for research? I’ll write, pause at a scene where I need info I don’t have, and go to Mr. G for clarification. I don’t read books about it, I don’t research more than a few pages – only enough to get me through that scene, Like Joanna Penn said. But when I’m revising and editing, I may find the scene lacking and do a more thorough research, sometimes twice or three times more.
    Simply put, If I research exhaustively before I do my writing, I’ll have a bunch of facts that I won’t need, and a bunch more that I forgot. It’ll make my writing infodumpy, and possibly even irrelevant.
    Well, I think I said a lot, and may even have crossed that dumpy field. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree – art over accuracy, within reason. What is ‘inaccuracy’ anyway? We almost certainly don’t think, behave, react the way people did hundreds of years ago, but we need the reader to be able to identify with the characters.
      I like the phrase ‘infodumpy’ – I am sure I have done this, dumped in a fact just because I researched it and I can, not because it helps set the scene or move the story along.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. As a reader I would hope that statements of fact would be accurate, but remember that the rest is fiction.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That sounds like a good balance. In terms of place and time setting, it seems reasonable, though characters often have to act somewhat ‘out of their time’ if we are to identify with them.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I research quite a bit for my fiction work. I want to be as accurate as possible when describing certain things – Places, people, setting, etc. The Internet and Google have been very helpful to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll second that – getting knee deep into an article is one thing, but sometimes we need to check a quick fact – it’s all about reliability of the source rather than the medium used to access it.


  6. Research is a second nature to me (I got paid to do market research).
    Now, whether on fiction or non-fiction, I use research as a confirmation.
    I want to do a post on Diego Rivera, I will confirm what I think I know.
    In other words, I write, and confirm doubts. If you start with research you’re likely to get glued in it.
    Hope all is well?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ‘Confirm what I think I know’ is a good way of putting it, fact checking. Research can be addictive – it’s a good thing (absorbing, interesting) and a dangerous thing (we can get deeper and deeper into the time-consuming business, increasingly aware of how much we do not know and shaking our confidence).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I wouldn’t worry too much about your confidence. Don’t let doubts crawl under your skin. Remember Socrates: “All I know is that I know nothing”.
        We shan’t be able to read all the books. But we have read many. There will always be gaps in our knowledge. But then we will always learn something new, almost every day. Having said that, research is a tool. You have a doubt? Check it. And move on… 😉
        Take care of yourself my dear…


  7. You have sparked a great discussion. I have to admit that historical fiction books are not my first choice as a reader. So when I read it, I don’t really care. HOWEVER, I would hate to discover an inaccuracy. If you want to use 666 to make a point, add “over” or “or so”, or something. DOn’t make me believe there are 666 windows if there are 667. That’s just a lie and I don’t like that.

    That’s why I prefer to write about general things that don’t need too much research. It takes away from my inspiration if I have to sit in front of my computer and search for something in the middle of writing.


  8. Hi Lobre. Long time no hear. I hope all is well with you? 🙏🏻


  9. Apology. LIbre.
    I really need to learn how to type. (Slower) 😉


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