Lee Child on writing and research

Lee Child readingA while back I asked Lee Child a question. Not in person, but via a Goodreads author promotion, and he was gracious enough to give a detailed reply.

I suspect it’s something many writers struggle with, and I revisited his answer because it’s something I bumped up against last week, writing the follow-up to my novel Private Viewing. Like its predecessor, the new novel is set in London, and although I know bits of London pretty well — having lived there on an off for about four years — there’s lots of bits I don’t know.

The internet is a fantastic tool for writers, but it’s also a fantastic trap. You can lose yourself for hours doing “research” — and I did just that. Till I remembered Lee Child’s answer and “researched” that instead. After a quick re-read, I stepped away from my browser and got back to my text …


I’m interested in your writing process. You’ve said elsewhere that the final book is pretty much your first draft; that you sit down, start writing and see where the story leads — both you and Reacher. But what about research? A lot of your books contain detailed descriptions of places, weapons, etc. Do you incorporate that as you go? Or do you add these details in later, once you’ve got the story sorted out?


Lee Child:

You could say a writer’s whole life is research. Everyone I meet, everything I read or see or experience is packed away for future use. Whether to do extensive research to ensure all your facts line up is an interesting question. When writing fiction, I don’t think accuracy matters as much as whether people perceive accuracy. If I wrote a novel set in New York City, I could make it extremely accurate, but my guess is the more accurate I made it, the more people might find it inaccurate. What matters is not what NYC is really like, but what people generally think it’s like. Readers will sometimes mail me to correct mistakes they’ve found in my books and sometimes they’re right, but surprisingly it’s usually the things I research most carefully that they say I got wrong. All in all, if you’re convincing rather than accurate, you’ll probably please more readers.

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