I love research which is both a blessing and a curse. Great because I have to spend a considerable amount of time doing it, but a huge disadvantage because I spend far longer doing it than (a) is necessary, and (b) I have time for.
Researching a novel takes you to some interesting places and I’m not just talking about visiting the countries where my novels are set. I mean steeping yourself in the whole background of the place – its history, architecture its peoples and their customs. It also involves delving into things you never anticipated. The process can involve reading (there are nine books on Vikings and Norse myths and legends sitting on my desk right now) including the vast amount of material on the internet, it can also mean interviewing “experts”.
- A coroners’ officer
- A fireman
- Someone who’d had a house fire
- A tropical plant expert
- A forensic archaeologist
We all know every crime writer needs a tame policeman! For a long time, I had no firearms expert and then, a bit like British buses, two came along at once. I also seem to need frequent information on medical maters but here I have several people I can consult depending on how I intend to kill off a character or temporarily remove them from the scene. All my books involve talking to a specialist of some kind. I spent a long time before my Fiona Mason novels researching coach companies. I visited two different companies, talked to a great many tour managers and I even attended a group interview for new managers and followed it up with some basic training.
Long before I ever started writing, before every holiday I would borrow the travel guides from the library and read up not only on the things we would be seeing and learning about the architecture but the history of the country and the specific region we would be visiting. History has become one of my recent passions. Knowing something of the area’s past makes you appreciate the buildings – forts, palaces, the religious buildings and sometimes, even the layout of the roads and the styles of the houses in the places on the itinerary.
The greatest problem for the writer of all this research is the temptation to force-feed it to the reader. Research material is like an iceberg – only 10% is above water. Some of my readers love hearing more about the background of where Fiona is taking her party, but others don’t. That’s how the idea for the Super Sun Travel itinerary notes at the beginning of each day of the tour came into being. These days, most travel companies provide booklets for their clients detailing each day’s activities in each place and its relevant history. For my readers who like to get on with the story, they know they can skip that page without missing anything in the plot.
My current novel – Undercover Geisha has involved a great deal of research into the life of a geisha, the Shinto and Buddist religions, Japanese emperors, samurai and shoguns and a lot more besides. To be honest, far more than is needed for the novel which barely touches on such things. Nonetheless, my research has given me a far greater sense of place that simply relying on the two-week holiday – magnificent though it was – that I spent in the country.
I recently read an article by Philippa Gregory in which she mentioned that she never has research books open on her desk when she is writing. Wise advice. It’s a policy I’ve always adopted when writing my novels too. However, I’m not sure I’ve been quite so diligent when I’ve been writing the notes for my PowerPoint presentations for my history cruise talks. For the last five months, getting on with this year’s novel has had to take second place. I’ve had a dozen cruise talks to prepare for three different cruises. I’m currently preparing for a Norwegian cruise – hence all the Viking books on my desk. As I said, I really enjoy the research, so I don’t stop at just a couple of books. I grab as many books from the library as I can carry home to add to the four books I’ve pulled from my own shelves. Copying great chunks out of books doesn’t work for cruise lectures anymore than for novels. It has to be in your own voice. After all, you are up on stage telling a story – feeding the imagination of your audience, making them want more – just like the novelist. The cruise lecturer’s job is to entertain not feed exam information to students. That’s my justification for spending so much time over the last couple of years cruise lecturing to the detriment of getting on with the novel.
Preparing my lectures, I’ve discovered that the sections I spend most time with are the beginning – it’s rewritten many times followed by the ending. But then the same rules apply as writing the novel – it’s crucial to grab your audience from the very first slide and if you want them to come back to the next lecture, a strong positive ending is essential. Plus you are only as good as your last lecture so you need to keep up the standard.
I’m going to find it hard getting back to Undercover Geisha in a few weeks’ time. Taking out large chunks of time means that I can’t simply carry on from where I left off six weeks ago. If I was more of a planner it might be a little easier but I’m not. It will take a while to get back into the mindset.
Perhaps I’ll start with a bit more research.