Short cuts or the long way round?
Short cuts - who doesn't like a way of getting to A and B quicker? Well, as a writer it can be a false economy, burning up fuel in a breathless dash, rather than stopping to enjoy the countryside along the way. Ok, enough with the car metaphors, I hear you say.
But the point I'm trying to make is that the slog of research, of getting to know your material inside-out is unlikely to be a wasted trip, however many wrong turns you take (yes, I know that's another car metaphor. Sorry, just can't help myself).
I've always been a bit of a short cuts guy. And it can often work, sometimes because an expeditious approach may also be the necessary one. In my day job as an educational writer, with a deadline to produce three chapters for a new coursebook written into a contract, I have a pretty good idea of how much I can write in any one time slot, including any necessary research (e.g sourcing poems, reading up about political theatre, checking that quotation from Jane Eyre etc). I have been writing educational 'stuff' for almost 30 years, so it is not surprising I know the back ways and unadopted twittens which I can squeeze my laptop through ('Now he's mixing metaphor with reality', I hear you groan).
But with writing full-length fiction, I am in a new landscape. I'm pretty good at expediting the writing part of it, cracking on with completing 2000 words a day or whatever it is I need to do. Yet, the pre-writing time is more difficult. I'm itching to tell the story, and haven't necessarily put aside the requisite time for the online searches or the library visit. If I have a character who ends up in a cult, as my current YA novel character does, what do I know about cults? Sure, I can make it up - although that's probably going to be based on dramas I have seen, or novels or 'faction' I have read, whether I like it or not (a girl stuck in a puritan-style camp? Hey, that's the Handmaid's Tale, isn't it? A charismatic, but evil leader - well, I've naturally got Manson in mind, the Manson who features in Vincent Bugliosi's account of the murders, 'Helter Skelter').
I recently read Matt Killeen's brilliant 'Orphan Monster Spy' which ends with a detailed explanation of the novel's basis in history and how he adapted and where necessary developed it for his needs. It made me think that I must really up my game when it comes to trawling sources for the background material I need.
Of course, there is a balance to be struck. One of the downsides of the research process, is that it is both a treasure trove of delights and a Pandora's Box at the same time. The more you look for material, the more there is. Every subject turns out to be far more complex than you thought. Knowing what to use, and what to ignore is tricky. And, you don't want it to go on so long that you lose that initial spark which interested you in the story in the first place, because no matter how much you research and explore, it is still your story. You can do what you like. Do you have to be true to the facts, to the known world? Of course not, unless that known world fruitfully informs your world-yet-to-be.
Yet my strong inclination is to spend more time getting to know my novel's landscape before I plot the route through it. For the moment, I'm turning the sat-nav off, and going to follow the road where it takes me.