Guest Post – Slacking Off for Fun and Profit: a writer’s guide to research

Albert Einstein in research mode

– by Nansi Kunze

You know, I don’t mean to sound immodest, but I have an incredible talent. It’s a gift I’ve possessed since infancy, as a matter of fact. It’s of crucial importance to my work as a novelist, and it is this: I am a hell of a slacker.

Oh, you may laugh, but I’m not kidding – I’m an A-lister when it comes to slacking off. I’ve avoided emptying the scraps container in my kitchen for so long, it’s starting to inch out to the compost bin all by itself. My son was 3 and a half years old when he saw me use the iron for the first time. I was consistently the last person to arrive at lectures in my first year of Uni, and I lived across the road from the lecture theatre.

Reprehensible? Probably. Profitable? Definitely. You see, writing novels involves a lot of research, and novel research isn’t all frowning over weighty tomes and trawling through databases. One of the great joys and privileges of being a writer is that what’s relevant to your work can be absolutely anything, from ice cream flavours and pick-up lines to breathtakingly expensive sports cars and daring escapology attempts. And that’s where the art of slacking off comes into its own.

Want to hone your dialogue skills? Sit in a café and listen to the people around you. Watch DVDs that would appeal to the characters you’re writing. You could even go to a party, if you’re so inclined (that’s too much like hard work for a hard-core slacker like me, of course). If you think this kind of dedicated slacking off is unnecessary, you’re mistaken, my friend; there’s nothing like seeing a dated expression appear on the lips of a YA character to make a reader plummet from even the highest point of suspended disbeliefi. Listening skills are the key to writing believable dialogue, particularly in Young Adult literature. If that involves hours spent chatting to your friends, well, that’s the price you have to pay for your art.

Observe the author checking out random links her friends have posted on Facebook, or scrolling through her Twitter page at a leisurely pace. Is she frittering away her time? Not at all, I assure you! Social media sites are a rich vein of inspiration and information for the novelist. People’s holiday snaps become the basis of unusual settings and interesting props to enhance world-building. Tweets about unsuccessful cooking attempts or feline misdemeanours transform themselves into whole scenes for the hapless heroes of humorous novels. The patch needed to fix a gaping plot-hole could be just a status update away.

Of course, there are times when the diligent writer will have to go to extra effort to achieve the amount of slacking off their manuscript requires. If you’re writing historical fiction, for example, or a novel set in another country, you may be forced to go on holiday. It’s common knowledge that one has to experience a place with all one’s senses in order to write about it: the taste of a real Venetian gelato, the smell of a market in Beijing, the feel of the rocks beneath one’s feet on the Inca Trail in Peruii. The slacker’s method, however, takes travel to a far more proactive level of research – finding out about things you might want to write about. You know, one day. So you write technology-focussed contemporary fiction – does that mean your visit to a medieval castle doesn’t constitute research? Of course not! You never know when your modern-day characters will end up on a sword-and-sorcery filmset.

Nansi researching what it’s like to wear a corset and crinoline – Museum of Fashion, Bath, UK

But if, by some mischance, you are a writer who wasn’t blessed with this inborn talent, do not despair. With practice, you too can train yourself to slack off effectively. Why not begin right now? Make yourself a snack, sit down in front of Twitter and pretend that quasi-intelligent forms of fungus aren’t taking over that container of food scraps on your kitchen bench. For as Einstein once remarked: ‘Nothing is so indicative of genius as idleness.’iii

  1. Seriously. Having a teenage girl call some guy a ‘spunk’ is only okay if your novel is set in 1988 … and describing furnishings as being ‘gaily striped’ indicates that you are, in fact, 102 years old (just like saying you write for ‘young people’ is inviting everyone to think of you as an ‘old person’). ‘Cool’, on the other hand, is always cool.
  2. Hiking may sound like hard work, but it still counts as slacking off because it’s such fun. Especially if you have someone else to set up the tents and do the cooking for you.
  3. All right – he didn’t really say that. But you can see how he might have, what with the hairstyle and all.