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The trap of “researchitis”

ALTHOUGH this is a short novel it took a long time to write. I fell into the age-old trap of “researchitis” – where delving into the real lives you have decided to focus on becomes an end in itself and you don’t know when to stop.

Sitting in the British Library looking through newspaper cuttings on microfiche or chasing up old copies of the Jesuit periodical The Month (in whose offices a couple of scenes of The Hopkins Conundrum are set) becomes an incredibly enjoyable pursuit. It’s hard to describe the joy you feel when you come across one tiny nugget you’ve been searching for. It’s exciting to nobody but yourself but there’s a powerful impulse to tell everyone around you what you’ve found so they can congratulate you on your sleuthing – which is what it feels like.

There are two dangers in all this. First, it takes up a huge amount of time that you really should be spending on rendering the material into imaginative fiction. Second – and all editors of historical fiction will be well aware of this – you become wedded to every bit of information you’ve found and if you’re not careful you’ll end up cramming all of it into your manuscript. My first draft was woeful. My agent at the time suggested I remodel it as narrative non-fiction, and I was deeply offended, but when I read it back I saw what he meant. It was as if I’d set myself a challenge to cram 50 points of historical information into three pages.

So the real challenge is what to get rid of. I had an entire fourth strand told from the point of view of Hopkins’ lost love, the tragic boy-poet Digby Dolben, and I had spent months researching his life and then writing it up as a big chunk of the novel. His life is fascinating in its own right – it’s perhaps the subject of some future project – but I ended up binning it because it was a distraction from the main themes of the novel and I was also struggling to find an authentic voice for Dolben. Of course, jettisoning something you’ve sweated over takes time to get your head round. In my experience you have to leave it long enough so you’ve forgotten the effort it was to write, and all you can see are the benefits of losing it.

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