So, you’re halfway through writing your novel, you’ve ticked all the boxes for character arcs, conflict and suspense, setting… except you’re stuck because you can’t find that crucial bit of detail on the internet.
Or you have found it, but on some dodgy website that’s over six years old and the details have probably changed tenfold since that time.
What to do? Here are my Top 3 tips for research:
1. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know
An old saying, but that’s why they stick around. Who do you know that you can ask? Use your network of friends; put a call-out on social media; ask work colleagues. You’d be surprised.
While writing Under Fire, I needed to find out how an attack helicopter would deal with a rogue submarine. Although an ex-work colleague had helped me from the submarine angle so that I knew how the boat would be defended, I had nothing from the helicopter point of view. A few weeks later I was getting my lunch out of the refrigerator at work and started chatting to one of the client’s project managers. He recognised my English accent, we compared notes about when we’d emigrated and what we’d done before coming to Australia – and that’s when he told me he used to fly Lynx helicopters.
2. Get out there!
This one’s fun – and it doesn’t have to be expensive. Yes, you can use aspects of your holiday to find out things – check out my blog post about our trip to Malta last year – but you can stay closer to home too.
Want to find out what it’s like working for the police? Contact your local police media unit to find out when they’re running the next open day. For example, in Brisbane the police have a history session one Sunday per month during which they’ll have a guest speaker talk about an old crime and take you through the steps they followed to solve it.
Want to know what it’s like to fire a gun? Shoot using a bow and arrow? Find out what it’s like to wield a sword? Contact your local sports clubs – they’re often more than happy to help a struggling writer and often want to know more about your project. And that’s where Tip #1 above comes into play again.
Search your local library for free conferences and presentations. Many professional bodies (e.g. Engineers Australia) offer free seminars and, again, you can use these to build up your network of experts…
Sometimes you’re going to have to invest in some research. By this, I mean buy a specialist non-fiction book on the subject, or a map when Google Earth won’t help you.
Personally, I’m turning into a bit of a map junkie. I think it’s my natural tendency to travel which comes into play but as soon as I get stuck, I’m like “I need to buy a map!” hence why I have a 1:1,100,000/1:11,000 scale map of Istanbul strewn across the office floor at the moment.
While I was writing White Gold, it’d been several years since I’d lived in the UK and it’s all very well writing a car chase along the Thames Embankment but I’d have looked a bit stupid if I’d sent my characters dashing off down a one-way street the wrong way. As luck would have it, I still had a fairly recent copy of the London A-Z to hand, which proved very useful.
Finally, keep all those notes and emails. Record the data, file it away for safekeeping and remember to tip your hat to the people who helped you along the way.
They’ll be more than happy to help you out the next time around.
A few years ago, the BBC published an article suggesting that the art of handwriting is in decline (read the full article here).
This got me thinking.
Aside from my own creative writing habits, which fluctuate between scribbling frantically into a well-thumbed notebook and typing just as furiously on the computer, I tried to remember when I’m most likely to handwrite things.
There’s the obvious – the shopping list, notes in meetings at work, greetings cards – however there are other things which I once handwrote that I now do via a computer or smartphone: calendar entries, reminders, ideas, emails, letters.
Growing up, an early primary school report contained the line “Rachel’s writing resembles a spider walking across the page”. Thankfully, that report got lost when my parents moved house several years ago.
I recall being made to sit down by my parents after birthdays and Christmas, writing thank-you letters out by rote: “Thank you for my present. I liked it very much”. Given the state of my handwriting at the time, it’s probably just as well the letters only comprised two sentences.
I was reminded of this ritual recently when we received a thank you note from our neighbours’ kids for their Christmas presents. In shaky handwriting, they’d both written to us on a home-made card which they’d decorated themselves before dropping into our mailbox. We thought it was great that people were still getting their kids do this – it meant a lot to us.
Then there were the handwriting practice sessions held during class at school when I was about seven or eight – having to carefully ensure my letters didn’t spill over lines by mistake, or trying to get those weird squashed ‘s’ letters right – and then getting that right, only to be told that we now had to join it all up !
Thankfully, I’m glad to say that my handwriting improved dramatically during my teenage years, probably out of necessity so I could read study notes and also develop my burgeoning creative writing ideas.
These days, I write to my grandfather every month and have done for several years now – we share news, jokes, and I’ll enclose photographs of our latest escapades here in Australia. It’s something I started doing on a regular basis before we emigrated as we’ve always been close and I didn’t want the distance of some 10,000 miles to get in the way of catching up on a regular basis. Grandad actually confessed that when we first started writing to each other while I was still in the UK, it was the first time in decades that he’d sat down to pen a letter.
However, I now type my letters to him – I can increase the font size making it easier for him to read, and I usually fill a minimum of three A4-sized pages so it’s quicker (and my hand doesn’t fall off by the end). Plus, I get to keep them and they’ve acted as a good reminder of what we’ve been up to since moving to Australia eight years ago. In turn, I’ve kept all the letters I’ve received from my Grandad, who uses an A5 notebook and again, usually fills these with wit and wisdom, which I’ll be able to treasure forever.
Consider, then, the history available to us at the moment which is completely reliant on handwritten records – medieval scripts, ancient scrolls, local village churches’ records of births, marriages and deaths. I’m always fascinated by documentaries or visits to museums where old documents are carefully unfolded and their secrets exposed to daylight once more.
So, here’s a thought – if handwriting is truly dying out, what’s going to be left for future generations to get excited about?
Times New Roman 12pt in an online file? I don’t think so.
What do you think?
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