Ok, before I start on this post, just let me tell you that I started writing it a month ago, on October 30th to be precise. Since then I don’t know what I’ve been doing, but I’m pretty sure it will have been a combination of working, writing, cleaning (but not ironing), and yes, researching. That’s the thing about researching for novels, it sucks you in. Suddenly a month has gone by and you haven’t blogged, you haven’t ironed and you still haven’t rung the electricity board with the meter reading. Anyway, I like it that way. I like being engrossed by something. Apart from the obvious all consuming distractions of a family, it doesn’t happen that often in real life: the odd TV programme (currently Pan AM); a particular celebrity’s dress sense (right now it’s, Felicity Jones); the occasional song (I am currently obsessing over Lianne La Havas’ music) and sometimes a news story (unemplopyment figures / the Pippa Middleton issue). But other than that, most things tend to pass me by. I’m not saying that this is a good thing. Believe me, I would like to be one of those politically and socially aware people, but honestly I spend most of my time thinking about weird bits of trivia relating to the construction of hedge mazes or how lovely it would be to live in the 50’s or the 60’s or the Pre-Raphaelite era or whatever period in time I’m obsessing about at any one particular time.
This is why I like books. There’s one out there for every conceivable topic I might choose to obsess over next. So, God love this writing lark, not only does it mean having to spend my time writing and reading alot, it also calls for researching. Over the last six months I’ve looked into river dwelling wildflowers in the early 1900’s; twenties dress styles; children’s authors of the 1920’s; the painter, Arthur Rackham; the history of Bristol’s floating harbour; pig farming; funeral customs; the River Thames; the geography of Oxfordshire; The Savoy Hotel in London and native British trees to name but a few topics.
More recently, as regular readers of this blog will know, I took a trip down to the village of Ewelme in Oxfordshire, which is one of the chosen settings of my novel in progress, for the sole purposes of research. It’s only a small village, but extremely pretty, home to ancient watercress beds and full of interesting history. It made a difference, actually going there: walking the streets and realising that a building or a road that I’d written about, was actually on the right and not the left if you were headed in the direction my characters were/are; understanding the distance between Ewelme and the next village and how long that might have taken someone to walk to etc.; and just the atmosphere of a place, something that is not always lost through time, but is retained despite modern day living and amenities. That’s me above, with my little one, standing by a wall and looking, absorbing, smelling Ewelme. I’m building a picture, storing images and thoughts in my head about how Ewelme presented itself to me and trying to tie this experience into my novel in some way. Admittedly it’s not the best picture, but that’s how it was: just me, standing around. Researching.
Being there made a difference to my writing and to my understanding of my characters, who are now as real to me as actual people.
You might ask why I chose to set my novel somewhere where I had never been and the answer lies mainly in the requirements of my story’s narrative. I knew from the beginning I needed a rural setting in the south of England and near to a river, if not The Thames, one that fed into the Thames. Somehow, by the wonder of Google, I stumbled upon Ewelme and thanks to the village’s history found on the very informative village website, I had found a contender to the vision in my head. Add to this some long held memories of Sunday nights watching Inspector Morse pootle round chocolate box villages and hedge lined lanes in Oxfordshire and the decision was made.
Now I’m back at my desk, armed with a more rounded knowledge of my setting and 50,00o more words to write. But I don’t feel overfaced, rather I’m looking forward to wherever my research takes me next. I know some people say you should only write about what you know. But I say, if you don’t know it, you can find it out. It’s all there, waiting for you in books or on the internet or even in person.
Research: one of the best bits about novel writing.