The kind of research that writers do preparatory to writing their novels comes in two flavours.
On the bottom shelf, in the pale pink bottle, there’s the sort of research you do in order to get the elements of your story right.
You’re writing a police procedural? Well, then, for goodness sake find out what the relevant police procedure is.
Writing a medical thriller involving illegal organ harvesting? Then attend a kidney transplant to get the pictures of the surgery firmly fixed in your mind. (And if every surgeon in the country turns down your requests to attend such an operation, then look online until you find what you’re after. It’s all there, believe me!)
But there’s a different kind of research. It comes in the emerald blue bottle on one of the upper shelves. It’s not the solution to a problem – but the inspiration for story.
At the Oxford Literary Festival, the thriller writer Christopher Fowler talked about a novel he was writing set in London during the blitz. He’d read all the usual books on conditions in the city at the time, he’d watched documentaries, he’d done his homework.
But then he remembered that his mother had herself lived through the Blitz.
“She’d worked,” he said, “as a legal secretary in The Strand.” He wondered what she remembered about the period.
“Oh,” she said, “I remember the telephone directories.” The telephone directories? What telephone directories? “Well,” she said, “when shop windows were blown out, they filled them with sandbags – but when they ran out of sandbags, they used old telephone directories to fill the windows. Used directories.”
Now that, Fowler said, is not something that you’d ever find in histories of the time, or online. It’s a detail that could only have been reported by someone who’d been on the spot. And it was a detail that, he said, he used to great good effect in his novel.
So when you need the sort of textural detail that simply brings a story alive, don’t rely only on the “official” history – seek out someone who was there (if that’s possible), and ask them what they remember, what struck them with particular force about the event they witnessed.
This goes for more than specific incidents. You’re writing a story that involves a horrific motor-car accident? Well, then, go talk to a tow-truck driver, or a paramedic, who’s attended more horrific motor-car accidents than you’ve had hot dinners.
Ask him to tell you about what he looks for when he arrives at the scene of an accident. Ask him for details of the sorts of things that he’s seen thrown clear of the colliding motor-cars. Ask him what he most fears as he’s racing to the scene, and what he most hopes for.
And then allow these impressions to guide you as you develop story around the fictional accident in your novel.
Note from Linzé: The post was reblogged with permission. Keep a look out for another post from Richard coming in June.