How to Research a Novel

I had the pleasure of meeting Lee Child last fall at Bouchercon in San Francisco. Unlike many bestselling authors, I found him to be very accessible and candid. Our conversation focused on Dennis Lehane's groundbreaking novel Mystic River, but if we'd had more time I would have asked him to describe the process he uses to research his Jack Reacher books.

As it happens, Child has already answered that question on his Web site:

So how do I do research? Not by going to the public library for three months and taking notes in advance. Problem is, I approach writing the book with the same excitement and impatience that I hope the reader is going to feel about reading it. But I need a certain measure of technical intrigue in the story. So if I'm too impatient to collect specific facts, where do they come from? 

The answer is by remembering and adapting. For instance, in countries where the book is already on sale, reviewers have seemed fascinated with an early section where Jack Reacher is subduing a couple of protection racket enforcers in an alley behind a New York restaurant: 

'He hit the right-hand guy in the side of the head with his elbow. Lots of good biological reasons for doing that. Generally speaking the human skull is harder than the human hand. A hand-to-skull impact, the hand gets damaged first. The elbow is better. And the side of the head is better than the front or the back. The human brain can withstand front-to-back displacement maybe ten times better than side-to-side displacement. Some kind of a complicated evolutionary reason.' 

The passage neatly encapsulates Reacher as a skilled and dispassionate fighter, but where and when did I find that information? The answer is years ago, in a couple of different places. I read all the time, absolutely everything. The hand-to-skull stuff came from a Victorian text about prizefighting I bought secondhand and read a decade ago. The front-to-back vs. side-to-side stuff came from a technical article I read in an auto magazine about the need for side airbags. And later, the howdunit part of the story—and I won't say what that is now—came from a newspaper piece I read about sports injuries.

So I file away interesting little snippets—not on paper, but in the back of my mind. 

Child makes the point that all novelists approach the challenge of research differently. Some take notes for years; others barely bother getting their facts straight. Like him I don't tend to separate my creative process into two parts, research and writing, but find myself switching gears when I realize that a new chapter requires me to go out into the world and learn something new. For instance, I plan on doing some dog-sledding this winter to help the verisimilitude of my third book.

A certain amount of research is necessary up front, but given the intensity and the immediacy of the Jack Reacher books, it doesn't surprise me that Lee Child works in the headlong way he does.