For a novelist writing a work of fiction in a familiar setting and era, the amount of research needed may be minimal – or even non-existent. But for writers of non-fiction, especially history, a great deal of in-depth research is usually required. It’s the foundation on which the narrative is built, and runs through the text like blood through an artery.
When pursuing a line of research, I usually go considerably further than the book itself dictates: for example, in my new work, The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, an individual named Zalma Bradley Lee has only a fairly minor part to play in the story as a whole and appears on just three or four pages. But I pushed the fact-finding process as far as it would go, in order to have the fullest possible understanding of what this person was like, and how she may have influenced the central members of the cast of characters and interacted with them.
In the event, I used probably only ten per cent of the information I had collected on Zalma but the in-depth research helped to explain certain otherwise inexplicable episodes in the lives of Charles Wells – the man who broke the bank – and his French mistress, Jeannette (who had once been Zalma’s maid, and who was later a governess to her daughter).
The French writer, Gustave Flaubert, is quoted as having said, ‘Writing history is like drinking an ocean and pissing a cupful.’
As I don’t possess Flaubert’s poetical turn of phrase, (!) I might not have expressed the sentiment in those exact words but I agree wholeheartedly with what he says. The research for a book is like a giant jigsaw puzzle. With any luck the writer will find most of the pieces of the puzzle and will discover how they fit together. He or she will have to take an educated guess when it comes to missing pieces of the story, and hope that there will not be too many of these.
The finished book may focus on a small section somewhere in the middle of the picture – but often it is the surrounding material that gives context, and aids our understanding of the core facts . And where hard information is missing, it is this peripheral knowledge that helps us to formulate hypothetical scenarios when some of the facts are obscure or not known at all. Just as an astronomer needs to have some understanding of the distant parts of the universe to be reasonably certain of how our own solar system functions, the writer needs at least a partial knowledge of the more obscure facts at the periphery of the subject in order to have a reliable understanding of the information at its heart.