Over at the International Thriller Writers site, I'm taking part in a round table on how much research is enough. Here's what I had to say - but take a look at the rest of the discussion.
I think research is one of those things where it helps to have experience. As CE Lawrence quite rightly points out, it is easy for the research to show too much on the page. A writer needs to know their subject, and to have a real feel for it. They need to know their characters as well, and have a real feel for the kinds of things they would think and feel and say as well. But they don’t have to have a text-book knowledge of everything they are writing about.
I suspect that attitudes to research have changed over the years as well. When I was writing ‘Fire Force’, which is a book set amongst mercenaries in Africa, I went back and re-read some of the classics of the genre. For example, I re-read ‘The Dogs of War’ by Frederick Forsyth. I can remember reading it when it came out, when I would have been about ten, and loving it. But today it seems like a really dull book, mainly because there is just too much research in it. The hero spends ages and ages setting up the mission. He regularly travels to Brussels to set up false bank accounts – by train and ferry, for Heaven’s sake, which takes up many pages. He doesn’t even get a plane. In the end, it just makes for what today seems a really dull read.
By contrast, ‘The Da Vinci Code’ is a poorly researched book. There are plenty or mistakes. Indeed, Westminster Abbey in London even had to issue a guidebook for tourists correcting some of the factual errors because so many tourists came in asking about them. But who cares? It’s a really good book – and it certainly sold well.
Thirty years ago, I think people expected thrillers to be very research-driven. But not right now. Today the key is to create your characters, and your story, and then do the research that is necessary to get things right. But this is fiction – its the plot and the people that really count.