The Joy of Research

Although novel writing is thought of as ‘creative fiction’, there is, or can be, a surprising amount of non-creative research involved. For ‘Bunco’, I had various references to contemporaneous cultural and sporting events – new shows opening on Broadway, ‘date’ movies on general release, important events at the end of the baseball season, facts about ‘Dallas‘ (the TV show, not the city), The Brady Bunch (a show I’ve never seen) and even popular US advertising campaigns. I felt that it was important to get the details as correct as possible.

One attraction of research is that it is a fantastic excuse for not actually writing. There are days when the writing part of my brain just doesn’t want to function – these are the days for ploughing through the internet or my bookshelves looking for some elusive fact.

Sometimes, to be honest, the only audience for my research is me. For example: in Bunco one of the characters takes intensive one-on-one Spanish lessons in a language institute in Brooklyn. The professor uses a large model town as a teaching aid. “I see you have observed my town?” he said with a smile. “Please take a look. I call it Tierrarota.”

I know that no-one will have paid any attention to that name, and it is never used again (even though the model town does feature again in the closing scenes of the book). Brooklyn was named after the Dutch town of Breukelen. Breukelen may, in turn, stem from Old Dutch meaning ‘broken land’. (It may, however, mean moorland.) The Spanish for ‘broken land’ is tierra rota.

By the way, the model town teaching aid is based on my own abortive effort to learn Italian via one-on-one lessons.

My next novel, ‘Empress’ is demanding far more research – shipbuilding on the Clyde in the 20s and 30s and the cultural and economic lives of the shipbuilding communities; luxury liners of the 1930s; the history of deep-sea diving; naval engagements in World War II and much else besides. As you can see from the Tierrarota example above, I enjoy this aspect of writing, but I cannot imagine how difficult and time-consuming it must have been in the days before the Internet.

Quite apart from being able to quickly Google ‘Broadway openings 2011‘ or whatever, for ‘Empress’ I have so far bought five out-of-print books online, for a total of less than €25 – and I live in a tiny village in SW France! Just fifteen years ago, I would have been faced with multiple trips to London to apply for a reader’s ticket to the British Library, and days of trudging through secondhand bookshop on Charing Cross Rd.

Of course, the other distraction from getting on with the novel is writing this blog.

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