Ian McEwan wanted to know how long it would take to hack off another man's arm.
In the Paris Review a few years back, the British novelist (author of Atonement and Amsterdam, two books I'm extremely fond of) described a dinner he had with a well-known pathologist. McEwan had some research questions for the novel he was writing, a Cold War espionage thriller called The Innocent. Specifically he wanted to know how long it would take an inexperienced man to saw through a human arm. The doctor thought about that for a moment and said he wasn't sure, but he had an autopsy scheduled for Monday morning. "Why don't you come along," the doctor said. "We'll saw off the fellow's arm and see."
Horrified, McEwan asked about the dead man's family. The doctor told him not to worry. "My assistant will sew it back on and it won't show at all."
Sadly, I haven't always had such enthusiastic cooperation with my own research. When I was beginning Cast of Shadows, I knew I was going to have to do some investigating of my own. It was a high-tech medical thriller after all, and my practical experience was in advertising and sports marketing. I didn't have the slightest idea how to go about it. So before I had written a word I found a professor (at either Northwestern or the University of Chicago, I don't remember which) who was reportedly an expert in genetic science. I called him and explained I was writing a novel about a doctor who clones his daughter's unknown assailant and waits for the child to grow up so he could see what the killer looked like.
"He clones his own daughter's murderer? That's horrible!" the professor said. "He can't do that! Why would he do that?"
I said, "Well I'm not really asking for your permission, professor. See it's a novel--"
"That would be just awful!" the professor said. "What a terrible thing to do!"
"Yeah that's sort of the point," I said. "Anyway I have a few quest--"
"What a horrible thing!"
I returned the handset quietly to the receiver while the professor continued to condemn my main character for his lack of humanity. I never even got to my first question.
Not wanting to go through that again with another expert, I decided I would just start writing and when I came to a point where I was missing a piece of important information (and I couldn't find a reliable answer on the internet in a few minutes) I would just make it up. Then when I got to the end of the draft, I went back to these passages and came up with a specific list of facts I needed to know and I tracked each of them down to make sure I got them right.
Now there are plenty of novelists who do the journalism thing with great skill and many of them uncover facts and events and characters in their hands-on research that become critical elements in their books. My system just happens to work for the kinds of stories I'm trying to tell. For one thing it doesn't slow down the writing process which is already slug-like for me. When looking up information I have the kind of non-linear curiosity that will always suck me into an infinitely hyperlinked internet wormhole. I might begin with a simple inquiry into DNA but end up blowing an entire morning with a study of third party politics in Trinidad and Tobago.
But perhaps the most important function of my research technique is that it keeps me from filling my chapters with all kinds of interesting (to me) information that isn't essential to the story. I know if I committed hours and hours to research before I started writing I would be tempted to cram everything I'd learned into the book just to show the reader all the hard work I had done.
There's a blockbuster author who is famous for his extensive technical study and his novels are bursting with facts that are barely peripheral to the plot. I won't use his name because someday I might want a blurb from him, but the following is the actual opening to Chapter 26 of one of his most popular novels. To further protect the author's identity I have changed the name of his famous protagonist to "Harrison Ford."
Pellets fired from a shotgun disperse radially at a rate of one inch per yard of linear travel. A lightning flash blazed through the windows, and (Ford) cringed on hearing the thunder immediately after--then realized it had followed too quickly to be thunder. The shot pattern had missed his head by three feet, and before he understood what had passed by him, Blondie's head snapped back, exploding into a cloud of red as his body fell backward to crash against a table leg...
Now the physics of a shotgun blast are obviously irrelevant to the action and worse, that information is now a hurdle the reader must jump before getting to the good stuff. I mean Blondie's brains are about to be blown out the back of his skull and that sterile first sentence takes us abruptly out of an exciting scene. The omniscient narrator doesn't need to prove to me that he took a full load of AP classes, and I assure you Harrison Ford is not doing the math in his head while dodging lead in a room full of terrorists and European royalty.
The unidentified author finds this kind of trivia irresistible, and he inserts examples seemingly at random into his manuscripts. It appears his fans don't mind--he has more of them than I do by the population of a G8 nation. In fact if he's still interested in giving me a blurb after this, I might suggest something like, "Guilfoile's story speeds along like a 700-series Japanese bullet train, whose power output per traction motor can top 300 kilowatts." Nevertheless, as a writer you will always know lots of cool stuff that you can't fit elegantly into your novel and it takes discipline not to force it all on the reader. You might find it painful to delete the lovingly crafted interior monologue in which your main character identifies the primary agricultural export of the Kingdom of Tonga, but will the reader miss it? If the answer is no, leave that little nugget in your Moleskine.
Incidentally, before Ian McEwan could go to that autopsy, he described his predicament to famed stage director Richard Eyre, who told him not to go. "You'll invent it much better than you'll describe it," Eyre said. Indeed the arm remained attached to the anonymous corpse and McEwan still thinks the scene is better for it. "Had I gone to the autopsy," McEwan said, "I would have had to become a journalist--and I don't think I'm a good journalist. I can describe accurately the thing that I imagine far better than the thing I remember seeing."
Also Tonga's primary export crop is pumpkins.
I'm betting you still don't care.