Jane Wenham-Jones is a novelist, journalist and presenter and the author of the Wannabe Books – two how-to manuals on getting published and becoming well-known. Below is an extract from Wannabe a Writer? available on Amazon or through all good bookshops. For more on Jane see http://www.janewenham-jones.com
Research — Do You or Don’t You?
Frederick Forsyth carries out what he calls “relentless research,” spending an entire year at it. Minette Walters is also extremely thorough and painstaking — consulting forensic scientists and attending post-mortems as well as the usual background reading.
While I’m writing this, Jilly Cooper is working on a new racing book. “I have about a hundred books to read,” she told me. “Biographies of jockeys and autobiographies of trainers and biographies of horses…”
I, on the other hand, err on the idle side when it comes to research and tend to proceed on a need-to-know basis rather than mugging up for months in advance.
Lynne Barrett-Lees works in similar way. “It’s all too easy to spend precious writing time jotting down facts, facts, facts, and to put off the hard bit,” she says. Research for her “happens organically as a by-product of writing, definitely not the other way around.” She says: “I don’t allow myself to sweat the small stuff until I reach a point where I need to. As long as I’ve established there’s a patient soul or two who’ll fill me in on any detail I need, I simply call them, as and when, while I’m writing.”
All of which shows that there is no right or wrong answer to how much research you should do as long as, whether it takes six months holed up in the British Library or six minutes on the phone to a friend, you do enough.
Even if you are writing “what you know” you’re still bound to have to check something, and check it you must for as we’ve said already, your novel will only work if it rings true and you won’t achieve that if your facts are wonky.
It is also worth remembering that what we know can only ever be just that — what WE know. By talking to others we can gain different insights or whole new angles on what we thought was familiar territory. Hilary Lloyd, the author of A Necessary Killing (UKA Press), is an ex-farmer who drew on her own experiences of living through the foot and mouth crisis for her novel.
Despite her first-hand knowledge, there were still things she needed to investigate. She says: “My experience of the epidemic was traumatic but a novel demands much more than reminiscences and feelings. I needed facts, and details of procedures employed by government and other official departments. I also needed to confirm that my own trauma wasn’t unique so I read through dozens of bewildered, distraught or angry messages on internet forums used by rural people at the time, and downloaded enough articles and comment from newspapers to wallpaper the whole of the house! The reading and absorbing of this material gave me a much wider view and helped flesh the bones of my plot.”
I did a similar thing when I was writing my second novel, Perfect Alibis, by talking to lots of different women who’d had affairs — or as many I could find who would admit to it!
Interestingly, for the same book I asked several friends who’d had appendicitis what it felt like, and was surprised by just how different their accounts were, and how entirely varied their symptoms.
It was a lesson on the importance of getting more than one version of anything one’s not been through oneself. Make sure you’ve got the majority experience down rather than a one-off.
For if you are asking a reader to suspend their disbelief and get totally absorbed in the world you’ve created, then you owe it to them to make sure that world is as authentic as possible.
I usually do this in one of two simple ways — go on Google or ask someone who might know.
Google is a wonderful tool. There isn’t much you can’t find out on the internet these days though a word of warning: do always check more than one source.
I have just spent a sobering half hour trying to find out how many grams of carbohydrate are in a large glass of wine (hoping to shed ten pounds on a crash Atkins-type diet while still getting pissed every night). The answers have been variously 3g, 1.8g, 5g, and almost 7g (with the only consensus the dispiriting news that to lose weight you have to give up the booze).
Asking an expert on the given subject is usually a safe bet — although again, two is better than one. During the writing of my last book, I checked facts with a GP, a gynecologist, a dog-owner, two wine-writers (who contradicted each other), an ex-policeman, a nurse, and a solicitor.
I also pored over the London A-Z, studied different models of answer-machines, and, since the novel is entitled One Glass Is Never Enough — suffered several near-terminal hangovers.
And I still missed something. I never want my husband to read anything until after it’s published but this time I wished he had. He instantly spotted an irregularity that I had totally overlooked (a bottle of champagne to the first reader to write and tell me what it is. Clue: it will help to be a gardener) and which I’ve been kicking myself for ever since.
I always think that if you have a scene that is heavily dependent on some specialist knowledge — let’s say a scene in the operating theatre in a hospital — then it is a good idea to let someone with first-hand experience — say a surgeon or a nurse – to have a quick read through and check for any dodgy bits.
Even if you have that sort of experience yourself make sure your knowledge is up-to-date. Police procedures, for example, have changed a lot over the years, as have the job-descriptions of teachers. Find someone who is doing the job right now rather than speaking to the old duffer next door who retired in 1976.
If you are lucky enough to get a publishing deal the copy editor will pick up things that need checking, too, but be professional and make sure everything in your manuscript is as accurate as you can make it before you submit it. There’s an old adage about keeping going through a first draft, that says: “Don’t get it right, get it written.” It’s excellent advice. As long as once you have got it written, you make sure you’ve also got it right.
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