It’s too late for research, you’re already writing??? NOT ON YOUR NELLY, writers – there’s always time for research, as fab author Alison Bond demonstrates … it can only HELP your writing! I must say, I’m a big fan of numbers 1 and 5!! Over to you Alison …
Write what you know, they say. And if you don’t know, be prepared to learn all about it.
Elizabeth Gilbert said that in order to write The Signature of All Things: “…for three straight years I sat in a chair, reading books about botany, evolution, abolition, women’s history, missionaries, Dutch 18th century commerce, and more…in order to fill my brains (and index cards) with enough information to write that novel.”
Research should be a joy. Like many avid readers I enjoy learning new things. The skill lies is not letting research distract you, but inspire you, especially during November’s Nanowrimo, so I have shared my research processes below and suggested tips to help make research an enjoyable and relaxing part of the NaNo whirlwind.
Properly undertaken, research can actually help you write faster.
Here is a list of some of the things that I have written about but never experienced:
- The 60’s.
- Scoring a goal for England.
- A masked orgy.
1. Research for Inspiration
I wrote a book that was partly set in London during the swinging sixties. Before I started telling that section of the story I read books and films set during that period, but best of all I met Pat and Mike Cowan, the parents of my best friend’s boyfriend, and over a couple of gin and tonics they told me first hand stories about what it was like inside the UFO club and where Jimi Hendrix liked to party. I wanted to know how it felt to be young in that time, if you knew you were part of something. I wanted to know what their parents had thought of it all. I had no notepad (bad writer) but I found an old envelope. I ended up opening it right out flat and covering the front and back with tiny handwritten notes, bursts of inspiration, gifts to my future writing self. My story came alive that day. I couldn’t wait to start writing it.
NaNo tip: Everybody that you chat to this month is fair game. Ask about the first time they got their heart broken or the last they shouted at their kids. Ask what they do when they are stressed or broke or caught in a lie. Make every conversation about your book whether people know it or not. MORE: inspiration on The Decision Pinterest boards about relationships.
2. Research for Facts
I can’t imagine what it must be like to score a goal for England. Oh hang on, wait a minute, I’m a writer, yes I can and I did. People often think I must have done a pile of research for my novel We Could be Heroes, aka The Football One, but although I was once a football fan (in pursuit of boys I now realise) I don’t know much about the finer details of the game. Ask one of my editors at Penguin, John English. He picked up plenty of inconceivable plot twists but I talked him round. Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. What I needed to do with this book was FACT CHECK, which is totally different to research. Need to know which airport in Ukraine serves Washington DC? Use an asterisk and keep writing. Don’t whine to me about not being able to put in description or needing to know how your character gets to a hotel. Asterisk. Write the next bit. Fact check later, add details then. The important part is not to go on the internet real quick just to check how to spell Aleksandr Petrovsky and end up watching the new Mockingjay trailer three hours later thinking “How did I get here?” Asterisk. I have six in this post already.
NaNo tip: NaNo is perfect for the asterisk technique. When you need a break from writing search for the first asterisk in your document (there should be many) and fact check one asterisk at a time. Before you know it you’ll want to start writing again. MORE: The Importance Of Research
3. Research for Fun
Yet another book. Another exotic location needed. Having exhausted my own travel experiences in previous novels it was now necessary to write several chapters about an unknown country. But where? I love Japanese food and Lost in Translation, people I think are cool think Japan is great, and bands I like do well there. So I decided to research Japan. It’s one of the best decisions I ever made. Researching Japan was a pleasure first and foremost, but it also opened up many new avenues in the story. In the planning stages it helped me understand and develop two of my major characters. Places I read about became key locations, entire chapters came to life. When the book came out one review from Chick Lit Chloe said: “The scenes in Japan are brilliant, very realistically written”. Job done.
NaNo tip: Research a topic that fascinates you and make it part of your NaNo story. Applying for university, baking bread, how to be a rock star, how to live on fifty dollars a day in New York City, how to surf, which poisons kill and which only maim. In your downtime research your topic, when you come to write again you will have masses of content in your fingertips. MORE: Writing Might Be Hard Work, But That’s Not The Same As Being Hard
4. Research for Detail
One reviewer on Amazon.com (as opposed to dot-co-dot-uk where they understand my sense of humour) called the masked orgy chapter in How to Be Famous “unintentionally hilarious”. Well the joke is on you my friend because, duh, I was trying to be funny. My orgy was a combination of the party scene from eighties mini-series The Stud and the best bits from Julie Burchill’s Ambition. Derivative? Maybe. Fun? Hopefully. I did some online research about sex toys and orgy protocol to add detail in an attempt to balance the ludicrous sexual gymnastics with humour. A salacious plot device to enable the heroine to see a certain tattooed bum-cheek? You betcha.
NaNo tip: Think of the parts of your book that are definitely outside the realm of your experience. Choose two or three and use Google to search for tiny details that will make the scene come alive and make notes. When you come to write these scenes the details will be waiting for you and it should be easier to let the words flow. MORE: 7 Big Mistakes In Novels
5. Research for Emotional Truth
I was nervous about asking people I knew had been in jail to tell me about their prison experiences but the resulting conversations made our relationships stronger as well as making Liam’s jail time in We Could Be Heroes ring true. I was very clear from the onset that I was not trying to recreate one specific experience but looking for the small universal details and the wider emotions. People usually enjoy talking about events in their life, particularly after a long time has passed, retelling their stories to you plays a large part in their necessary process of reflection, so it could be that by asking people to rake over their past you are being helpful. Or you are being nosy. But as long as you make it clear that you are looking for inspiration, not gossip, I have found that people let you ask pretty much any question you like.
NaNo tip: Get into the real stuff. NaNo is supposed to be an intense experience. This is the time to ask your friends and family about those things they don’t like to talk about, all in the name of research. If not now, then when? Back off if you’re asked to back off, otherwise dig deep and be inspired by the secret lives of other people. MORE: 4 Ways Samey Stories Happen – And 1 Thing You Can Do To Beat Them
BIO: Alison Bond has written seven novels, been translated into twelve languages and received five stars in Heat magazine. She lives in a remote corner of the Midlands with one husband, two children and three chickens. Follow her on Twitter as @bondgirluk.