Wear it well but wear it lightly – research for writers

When I started my MA in creative writing, we had a seminar about research. What I remember most is that the tutor, Scarlett Thomas, suggested we buy a big notebook just for research. I need no encouragement to indulge in a bit of stationery buying; I also have a thing about notebooks being gifts to me, a kind of writer’s superstition, so I expect I asked someone to buy one for me. For me, the best journals for everyday writing, free-writing and drafts are A5, preferably spiral-bound. Research notebooks are A4. They need to be big enough to make plans, write mind-maps, to paste in cuttings from newspapers and so on. But I digress into stationery, when my topic is research.

Research or a notebook obsession?

Research or a notebook obsession?

I like to write a first draft, and check my research later. For my story collection As Long as it Takes, I did a lot of reading, collected all sorts of things to paste into my research book, took note of details that might or might not end up in the stories.

When writing the story ‘More Katharine than Audrey’, I saw a dress on a tailor’s dummy in an antiques market in Harrogate together with some yellow enamel jewellery. It was exactly the kind of dress that my character Noreen would wear to a dance, along with the necklace and earrings. I jotted down the details in my research notebook and had the dress in mind as I wrote. A description of it ended up in the story, but the jewellery didn’t, even though I pictured her wearing the jewellery too. I would like to think that my full imaginary outfit for Noreen comes through in the writing, brings her to life.

When I was working on that story, I showed it to a tutor on an Arvon retreat. Noreen, the protagonist, is in a long-stay hospital, and it doesn’t become clear until the end of the story why she is there. The tutor said I needed to plant some clues in the early part of the story and to research the symptoms and treatment of her illness at the time when the story was set. Fortunately for me, my husband was working as an editor of exams for the Royal College of Physicians, and he did the research for me.

I had to place the details lightly. Rather than have Noreen say ‘There were no antibiotics then so they couldn’t cure me when I first became ill, but there are now, but they don’t work for everyone. And this is what it was like when I first got it.’ I had her say:

And here’s me in Long Grove with Rosina Bryars and the nurses. No gold cure for me. No Peter Finch. But it won’t be long before they find the right combination of drugs for me, as they did for the others.

Pea soup it said in the books: six to eight motions a day, and it looks like pea soup. That’s just how it was when I had the fever. I can’t eat it to this day: that and rhubarb. Mammy used to boil it up to clean the pans; I worried it would strip the lining of my stomach.

You can read ‘More Katharine than Audrey’ here, and a blog piece on how I came to write the story: ‘From Norah to Noreen’. Both are on the Writers’ Hub website.

I’ve come across a couple of instances of research either being too evident or lacking. I read Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks a few years back. The novel is set in the early days of psychiatry. Boy, did Faulks know his subject, but I felt he wanted to let us know all of his research. It was a bit too detailed for my liking. In contrast, I’ve picked up anachronisms and mistakes whilst editing that could have easily been checked with a bit of research on the part of the writer. A reference to Ninja Turtles in a story set in the 1970s; describing frets on a violin’s fingerboard in a poem; characters dressing in fashions that are not correct for the time. This is why editors are important as well as research on the part of the writer. These kind of mistakes leap out of the page for those readers who spot them, and take them out of the world that the writer has created.

I’d be interested to hear others’ ideas on research. Do you research before writing or after? Do you, like me, use notebooks for research or even gather physical objects around you? Do you write character sketches, take your characters shopping to see what they might buy? Whatever you do, remember to use your research with care: wear it well but wear it lightly.

1 Comment

  • By Linda Maye Adams, October 29, 2014 @ 10:34 am

    I do a fast pass of research before the story, like reading a tour book on the setting or a memoir set in that location. No notes. Then during the writing, I use the characterization and character’s knowledge to bring in setting details and that’s when I do quick research. I’ll look at photos to help give the picture of the setting and hunt down common plants and trees for the area (harder than it sounds). A lot of times, I’m trying to look at what emotions a character is experiencing at the moment and that plays into what I pick.

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