Monday, July 09, 2012

The joy of research

After Barbara's post last week about the background reading she did for her book, I thought I would write something about the sheer joy of research.

Apart from those moments when my characters take over and all I have to do is write it down, it's my favourite part of writing a book.   You're learning something new and interesting; not only that, it postpones the time when you have to sit down at a blank screen and you can feel virtuous at the same time..

When I first started writing, I had no idea how to go about finding out what I needed to know.  I  spent a lot of time in libraries, looking up references,  and the hunt for the smallest nugget of information could take days.  God bless the Internet!

I never thought about playing the man not the ball, so to speak - going to someone who did  know and asking for their help.  How could I go up to a complete stranger and ask them to spend their valuable time instructing an ignoramus like me?  Why should they?

When I plucked up courage to do it at last, I found to my astonishment that people with specialised knowledge LOVE talking about it. They are often intrigued by what I'm doing and quite flattered to be asked.

Sometimes it's even difficult to stop them talking.  I wanted to find out details of policing in the part of Scotland where my series is based and a DI in the local force - the same rank as my fictional Marjory Fleming - very kindly gave me an appointment at 11.30 one morning.  I reckoned that with a bit of luck I'd be allowed half-an-hour, so I spent quite some time pruning my questions down to a short 'most vital' list.  I emerged from his office at 2.30 in the afternoon, with pages of useful notes.

I've had an afternoon with a silversmith, walked round a deer farm with a vet and even gone on location with the long-running British crime series, Taggart.  They even gave me a part as an extra and paid me £76 - though sadly I ended up on the cutting-room floor!

Research, though, has its dangers.  The temptation to share every last bit of it with my lucky readers is one I  have to fight against.  I've read so many books where the story is zipping along nicely and then I've turned the page and gone slap into a solid wall of research. It's as if the author's saying, 'Look, after all the work I've done getting hold of this stuff, you're darned well going to read it.'

So I have a card propped up on my desk: 'Memo to self: - it's the story, stupid.'  Facts should be included on a need-to-know basis, to create the atmosphere or illuminate an action, but they can't be allowed to  slow down the pace at which the reader turns the pages.

And however essential the research may be, there comes a time when you have to recognise that what you're doing isn't virtuous any more.  You might as well be playing Solitaire, and it's blank page time once again.


LD Masterson said...

My problem is with that second danger you mentioned...when the researching becomes almost addictive, especially on the Internet, and I end up following my nose (or my mouse) into areas far away from where I needed to be.

Aline Templeton said...

I totally sympathise. The worst bit is when I've been so seduced away that I forget what I started out looking for!


Life After Death said...

I've read your article & thanks for sharing this kind of unknown info.

Aline Templeton said...

I'glad you feel it was helpful. If you're not a pushy eprson by nature it's sometimes difficult to get the courage to approach people cold, but in my experience it's well worth it.