Too much research...

It’s good for a writer to do research, to find facts and anecdotes to give their fiction an air of authenticity and verisimilitude. 1

But, sometimes writers get carried away; instead of using research to flesh out their fiction, they put a veneer of fiction over their research, turning it into a glorified feature article.

As a teenager, I devoured Arthur Hailey’s books, enjoying both the stories and the snippets of information he wove into them; it felt like I had a real idea of what it was like to work in a New Orleans hotel, Detroit motor company or busy airport. Then I read The Evening News and struck a passage that pulled me out of the story. One character asked another something along the lines of: “so, how do you see the news business changing in the future?”2 The other character gave an answer that talked about technology and may have been a spot on prediction of what has happened since.

The problem was, it didn’t feel like a natural part of the story, it felt like Hailey had asked the same question to a contact when researching the novel, liked the answer, then squeezed it into the story. As a student interested in media and politics, it was a fascinating answer. As a reader, it drew me out of the story and made me wonder if Hailey was going overboard, using his novel to show off his research instead of supplement the story.

I’ve recently read three thrillers with similar themes – an experienced US military officer, aided by a ragtag team, takes on a numerically superior foe (with one developed character as the leader supported by interchangeable foreigners as cannon fodder), using their skills, technology and a good proportion of dumb luck to be victorious in the end. Despite this commonality, the three novels are very different, due partly to the level of research included in the text.

Ghost Watch by David Rollins, has USAF special agent Vin Cooper escorting hip-hop stars through Equatorial Guinea after their helicopter crashes, then surviving in the jungle while taking on various factions (and a US mercenary). I’d never read Rollins before, picking the book up because of the title and blurb, so found it to be a good, fast read, which was clearly based on research about the various paramilitary groups in the area and what they were doing to the civilians.

The next book I started was Against All Enemies by Tom Clancy and Peter Telep. I’ve read all of Clancy’s novels and it’s clear where he comes from politically; he’s a right-wing hawk who believes the best people to make decisions about the USA’s (and the world’s) political and economic future are those who have succeeded in the military, intelligence and business communities – hence Jack Ryan as president. That said, he also devotes a lot of time to fleshing out other characters, including his heroes’ opponents. Clancy takes care to let us know what they’re thinking and why, meaning he gives a good understanding of the mindset of the Taliban or Al Qaeda suicide bombers – they’re clearly the bad guys but they’re not cardboard cutout stereotypes.

This does mean that his books are long (750+ pages) and give a lot of extra information as he gives backgrounds to the dozen or so major characters. In the first tenth of the book, I learned about marijuana growing, cocaine processing, growing up around cartels, Pakistani politics, US border patrols... the list goes on and on, with extensive flashbacks to the main character’s – ex-SEAL turned CIA operative Moore – training, love life, missions and philosophy. A series of interesting factoids? Yes. Helpful to get into some characters’ heads? Sure. Necessary to tell the story? Arguable – this much detail for any two or three of the characters would help, for all of them it becomes overwhelming.

So much so, that the reason I mentioned 75 pages above is that after that I started reading a third book and only returned to Clancy after I finished that one.

Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves is Matthew Reilly’s 5th novel featuring US Marine Shane Scoffield. If Stephen King is the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries, Reilly is the literary equivalent of a Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer movie. He provides heroic characters fighting impossible odds, blowing tons of stuff up, defying the laws of gravity and producing a body toll greater than many national disasters. His stories follow Q’s first law of unlikely but ultimately useful gizmos, in that the heroes are given or acquire many cool gadgets that you’d never expect them to be able to use and you can guarantee that circumstances will arrive that require them to use precisely the toys they have on them, usually in some kind of MacGuyverish way.

The laws of physics do not exist in Reilly’s dojo – and I don’t think he’d see that as an insult, as he’s unashamedly keen to provide a leaner, meaner and more intense story with each novel.

Reilly does research into military projects, technology and events, but he doesn’t cling to them, mixing fact and fiction with glee, putting his own spin on weapons into a real world setting (with unrealistic, but fun, results). Some of his leaps of fantasy frustrate me (the Johnny-5 robot was cutesy and there were a few too many occasions where the main characters died and came back to life) but it was a fun ride. The result was I read his faster than the other two, knocking if off in a couple of days, because it races along (it's also shorter and has less text per chapter).

So, what's it all mean?

First - all three books are fun and I'd recommend them to others (but not necessarily all to the same audience - I suspect there's not a lot of Clancy/Reilly cross-over). But the differences in research, and how that research is inserted into the story, makes a difference in reader satisfaction.

Picture a 10-step continuum of action versus information (or explosions versus exposition):
• Reilly is a solid 2 - some exposition but solely to fill in the gaps before Scoffield blows something up.
• Rollins is about a 4 - there's research, but it's woven into the story reasonably subtly.
• Clancy comes in at the other end of the spectrum - an 8 based on the first half of the book, although he tones it down 300 or so pages in (partly by killing off a few of the characters) so I'd give him a 7 overall.

Overall, I found Reilly to be the most fun to read, if very implausible, while Rollins is closer to my own writing style in terms of balancing research and story. Clancy was frustratingly detailed at first, reminding me of my Hailey experience, but wrapped it up well by the end.

My fiction aims firstly to tell a story, with some memorable characters, cool action, and maybe a subtle theme or message slipped in. I usually do research after getting the initial ideas down, fleshing out the outline with a few facts, bulking out a character's background with something a real person has done, or getting some good descriptions of the tech or settings to add a sliver of reality, but only a sliver. The goal it to reassure the reader that it's not a total make-believe fantasy with no resemblance to the real world, not to make a documentary.

  • 1. Aa very cool word popularised by Richard Donner, director of the 1970s Superman.
  • 2. I’m paraphrasing from memory, but the fact I recall it even this well after 15 years is a testament to the effect it had on me.