My research process, AKA trying not to drown in procrastination and recrimination
I’m working on the first draft of a new series at the moment, which mean I’m doing an awful lot of ad-hoc research. Which is to say, I permanently have one tab open to Wikipedia.
It’s often said that you should never look at the search history of a writer, but a quick look over my Wikipedia history alone would have anyone reaching slowly for a panic button. It’s an odd mix of human decomposition rates and mid-90’s alternative band discographies, of articles on the lifespan of petrol vs diesel and the smoking rates of different countries.
I can’t imagine what it was like being a writer before the internet. Imagine walking down to your local library and asking for information on what colour a corpse is after 48 hours one week, and what popular foods for peasants in mid-nineteenth century Yorkshire the next. No wonder we’ve got a reputation as weird, slightly nervous types.
Research in the age of the internet, however is all about the overwhelm. If, like me, you’re a writer who can only spare a few hours a day to the task and you have a daily word count to hit, it’s no good getting a few hundred words in and realising you need some tiny nugget of information on ammunition for UK police weapons if you then fall down a Wikipedia rabbit hole that ends somehow with you reading the history of the police baton for the next two hours. The great enemy of creativity is procrastination, and research is just about the purest form of procrastination there it.
Thankfully, research isn’t just Wikipedia wormholes for me. I can also legitimately sink many hours into watching television, all in the name of research, and I don’t even have to feel remotely guilty about not writing when I do it, as long as I have a pen and paper next to me as I do it. The UK has some great fly-on-the-wall documentaries constantly spying on our various emergency services, and I mainline several of them directly into my corneas in the name of research. The always excellent 24 Hours in Police Custody is a great source of life slices, as well as shining a light into the everyday practices of the UK police department. I became obsessed with it around the same time I was writing Blood on the Motorway’s final drafts, and a lot of the humour and practices of Burnett and Tana were very heavily flavoured by it.
The book I’m writing at the moment has a paramedic at its core. It’s my first time writing a book with a single protagonist, and as a result I’m watching a lot of the show Ambulance – at turns brilliant and heartbreaking and life-affirming and also very, very useful. It’s giving my main character what is I hope a real feel, but at the same time I am becoming acutely aware that this is a profession I am fortunate enough to have had little encounter with over my years.
There is, after all, nothing like the real thing, so I have a favour to ask. If you are reading this and you are a paramedic, or you are close to a paramedic (either emotionally or, I dunno, there’s one next to you on the bus right now as you read this), could I ask you to get in touch, or ask that person if I could get in touch with them directly? The more I write this character, the more I like her, and the more I want to do her heroism, her bravery, and her compassion justice. I’d just like a bit of a chat, see if I’m on the right lines with where I’m going, and make sure I can do justice to what is probably one of the most important jobs in the world.
Writers, what is your favourite research method/procrastination technique?
Paul Stephenson is a writer of horror and science fiction novels. Blood on the Motorway: An apocalyptic trilogy of murder and stale sandwiches is out now in ebook and print from Amazon and all other good bookstores. You can get the first book free by joining the mailing list or reading along at Wattpad. Oh, and he’s got a Patreon. Sign up for free books, a free weekly short story, and much more.