How Far Would You Go in the Name of Research?

20 Feb



Margaret K Johnson asks:  How far would you go in the name of research?
We have all heard about method actors who go to extreme lengths to get into character for their roles. These actors feel they need to really experience the lives of their characters.  For example, to play the character of Christy Brown in My Left Foot about a disabled man, Daniel Day-Lewis refused to leave his wheelchair for the whole duration of the filming. Robert de Niro became a taxi driver for his role in Taxi Driver, and learnt to box for Raging Bull. It’s also very common for actors to gain or lose weight for their roles – Christian Bale weighed only 122 pounds for his role in The Machinist, and Ann Hathaway lost 25 pounds and cut off all her hair for her role in Les Miserables.
What about Writers?
These days we almost take such behavior by actors for granted.  But what about writers?  Do we need to deliberately set out to experience situations for the sake of our writing?  Surely not. After all, we are writers – we should have enough imagination without doing that, right?
Well, actually, yes and no.  I think it depends on what you’re writing about.  Authors of detective stories are not going to kill people to find out what it feels like to be a murderer.  At least, I hope not!  But they are likely to draw on their experience of grief when writing about the victims of such crimes.
When I was writing my novel The Dare Club, which is about a group of newly-separated people setting each other challenges in order to forget about their problems, I found that there were some things I could easily imagine – for example gate-crashing a total stranger’s 40th birthday party.  But when one of my characters wanted to perform stand-up comedy, I knew I would have to have a go at it myself. How else would I find out how to come up with material, to prepare for a performance, or to deal with the sheer, blinding terror of actually performing?
Stand-Up Comedy Class fto Research
So, with everyone telling me how brave I was, I duly booked myself on a weekend stand-up comedy course in London.  And then, two months later, I returned to perform a 3-minute stand-up comedy routine in a Greenwich comedy club.  Here’s a link to a clip of me performing, in case you don’t believe me!  It was a completely amazing – if terrifying – experience, and it really gave me an insight that I was able to use in my writing:
Now I’ve got a taste for challenging myself, in the future I might even choose to write novels that involve me doing exciting research. Though maybe not quite in the way I stated at the end of my stand-up comedy performance.
People say to me – “If you wrote murder fiction, would you actually kill someone to find out what it feels like?” I say, of course not.  But I might put an orgy in my next book…

Margaret K Johnson Author Bio

Margaret K Johnson is the author of the women’s fiction novels the Dare Club and The Goddess Workshop as well as many books in various genres for people learning to speak English.  She has also written plays and screen plays.  Margaret has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia and lives in Norwich, UK with her partner and son. Her Amazon Author Page is

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One response to “How Far Would You Go in the Name of Research?

  1. julitownsend

    February 21, 2014 at 6:24 am

    Tom Wolfe attended college (university) to research I am Charlotte Simmons. I can remember reading about the things he’d done to research books – things like following a fire brigade around – and thinking what fun that would be. I probably need to write a few more books before I can go to the Mortuary and ask to sit in on autopsies, though! (That sort of research appeals to me!) 🙂

    I know I don’t want to write about Stand Up comedy, though. Phew!


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