Writing fiction often involves finding out about things you don’t yet know enough about, or checking things you are not sure of. Sometimes you will use your notebook to detail your research. But what research do other writers undertake?
Here novelists Tim Pears, Patricia Duncker and Alex Garland talk about their approaches to research. Do their approaches have anything in common?
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Writing fiction often involves finding out about things you don’t yet know enough about, or checking things you are not sure of. Sometimes you will use your journal to detail your research. Here novelists Tim Pears, Patricia Duncker and Alex Garland talk about their approaches to research.
It’s one of the great advantages of writing a novel is that it’s an excuse to find out about a whole world I always have that at the beginning of a book. I think right, what do I really want to find out about for this book. I’ve got some basic idea but, it’s got to be embedded in a world, a real world, a world of people, and work which is something I’m kind of generally interested in is what people do.
From everywhere, you know like a magnet, people sometimes say that, you know the most important thing that we must do is to remember, do not forget, you know do not forget, there’s a great a kind of a 20th Century injunction, do not forget, do not allow things to be forgotten, and that novelists are somehow, it’s one of our jobs, it’s a guardians of memory.
But in my own experience and for other writers that I’ve spoken to, it seems like one of the common attributes is a poor memory, and it’s almost like you kind of fill yourself up with things, and then you let them go, because you move onto the next thing. So, certainly for In a Land of Plenty it was dealing with the recent past with things that had happened in my lifetime, but certainly I couldn’t rely on my own memory, so I would just draw on everything; newspapers books, other people’s memories a lot. Photographs, I think photographs are very useful, because you forget hair style, fashion and so on and then it just all comes back, when you see aphotograph and you think, my god we were dressed like that, and all things come back.
I’ve written one historical novel which is my second novel, James Miranda Barry. To some extent, I think all novels are historical novels because whatever period you’re writing about, has to be thoroughly researched, and the last novel that I wrote was a contemporary novel, that was set in our present time. And I still found that I had to do almost as much research for that as I did for James Miranda Barry.
With James Miranda Barry the research was fun because it was set in the early part of the 19th Century through to about 1865/1870 and one of the things about that period which really interests me is, the fact that you’re moving from the Regency through to the Victorian period. So we’re gradually becoming more and more straight-laced, and religion is becoming more and more important in the society. So that the reading I did was, a lot of history, an awful lot about the professions of my characters. One was a doctor one was an actress, so I read an awful lot about what the conditions were on the stage of that period, and about the state of medical research in the 19th Century.
The other aspect of the book that was fascinating for me was the West Indian content of the book. Because James Miranda Barry was a doctor in the colonial service who worked abroad, and he spent some of his professional life in Jamaica, which is where I come from, so it was fascinating to read all the things that I’d vaguely heard about in history or knew a little about, but to go into them in depth. Particularly, the slave revolts, because there is a scene in the book which is about, the Morant bay rebellion, about which I knew absolutely nothing, except that we frequently commemorated it on stamps, until I’d researched it up. But I wouldn’t say that I did less research for the novels that are contemporary, and in fact, the research tends to be the same, it’s about professions, about locations, and about the histories of places.
I didn’t really do any deliberate research on either of the two books. Coincidentally, I was a back packer that was what my life revolved around in a way. Writing was always a secondary concern to me about how I could get a ticket or a visa and where I wanted to go. The Philippines, I was particularly fond of, I’d been there repeatedly for years and years and years by the time I started to write The Tesseract so I didn’t really need any research.
I think also research, deliberate research can be difficult because it’s a kind of side step away from imagination or it can be if you’re not careful. And that can show up in writing as well. I think very often, you know, another one of these little truisms about writing is that a lot of writing is about editing and about what you take out, and I think that’s very true and if you leave a reader with a sense that something’s been too heavily researched I think that’s bound to distance them from their emotional contact with the narrative.
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