Google or Go? How writers research a novel

Mo Harber-Lamond
5 June 2015

Novel writers: are you a remote researcher, finding your facts on Google, or an intrepid explorer, traipsing the streets for stories? Faber Academy Writing a Novel online course student Sara Schneider explains why the best stories come when you get out there and do the legwork yourself.

If the author doesn’t leave their desk, then nothing happens to the author.

David Nicholls

In the day and age of Google street view, why would anyone traipse across the globe — or across town for that matter — to scout locations for a novel? Why tire your feet when you can sit in bed with your MacBook in your lap, and a cup of tea on the bedside table?

In Session 8 of our Faber Academy Writing a Novel online course we dug in to the subject of research, and our tutor, Tom Bromley, sent us this article by David Nicholls: Google v old-fashioned legwork – how to research a novel. In the article, Nicholls made this comment about using Google instead of hitting the pavement yourself: “If the author doesn’t leave their desk, then nothing happens to the author.”

In the course of researching my novel, I’ve found this to be true. The protagonist of my novel is Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I, whose only fear was being forgotten. He launched a campaign of artistic propaganda to make sure he’d be remembered long after his death.

Kaiser Max

Kaiser Max

  • Spend time on your novel, and get it done
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  • Fit your writing around other commitments
Writing a Novel: the first 15,000

So far, I’ve made two research trips, one of them to his favorite city of Innsbruck, Austria. Doing field research for a novel set five hundred years ago might seem like the very definition of futility. The cityscapes are vastly different, and only a few buildings from that time survive. OK, one of them is the iconic Golden Roof, which was one of Max’s own building projects. But I could have looked at pictures of it online, and stayed at home. However, filled with freshman zeal, I went for it.

The Golden Roof, Innsbruck, Austria

The Golden Roof, Innsbruck, Austria

I booked a room in Innsbruck with Airbnb. My host was named Martin. Soon after I arrived, we were making small talk, like strangers do, and I told Martin the reason for my visit to Innsbruck: researching a novel about Emperor Maximilian I.

Martin didn’t even blink. “Oh, have you heard the Martinswand story? Kaiser Max was hunting in the mountains, and climbed up so high that he couldn’t get down again, and spent three days and nights on a rocky ledge. Then he was saved by an angel. The village of Kematen was named after this story: it’s a Tyrolean dialect for ‘Then he came’.”

Martin was not an historian, an archivist or a museum curator. He was a normal forty-something guy who liked to ski and travel to warmer climates. What astonished me was how readily he told this story. Maximilian’s empire encompassed present-day Germany too, and the Germans I speak to about my novel tend to furrow their brows, think hard, then say, “Which one was he, again?”

What did I learn from all of this? For the people of the Tyrol, Maximilian is still a folk hero. He got his wish: there at least, he is not forgotten.

You want my two cents? Where possible, get out there and do the legwork. You never know who you might run into.

Writing a Novel: the first 15,000 online course

Begins: 23 January 2019