Monday, 23 May 2011

How Writers Research #1

I'm currently tackling my dissertation for my MSc in Library and Information Management and I've chosen to complete a collective case study on the subject of how novelists approach the task of researching their novels. It's very interesting to chat to the writers involved about how they find and use relevant information: what sources they use, how they decide what to record, and what they think and feel about the process.

Ian Hocking has been kind enough to help me get to grips with what sort of questions to ask (well, he is a Psychology lecturer as well as a bestselling novelist...) and at the end of our chat about methods of research we thought it might make interesting reading for a wider audience, so he gave me permission to post some of our discussion on my blog.

For those of you without a Kindle or any interest in sci-fi I should point out that Ian's novel Deja Vu has been riding high in the Kindle charts for a good month or so, and the sequel, Flashback, was released yesterday. They're both jolly good reads, and very well researched, too. Of course.

It's a long interview so I'll split it into a few bits. Here's part one. When Ian talks about the book in progress, he's talking about the new Saskia Brandt book he's been working on, the one after Flashback, so you can get some idea of what that book is about into the bargain...

A: How do you approach the task of researching a new novel?

I:The research for a novel is typically quite secondary to the story - that is, what the characters are going to do to each other and have happen to them. But it is central to the feel of the book. I tend have the feel sorted out first; there might be a period in history that I'm interested in and that period creates a certain effect. The most recent novel I wrote involved a time traveller ending up in Russia towards the end of Tsarist rule. The effect of that is decline, ending, sadness, and a sense of disgust (in me) that fabulously wealthy individuals partied while other starved.

In terms of a timeline, the research took place at the same time as the writing in this case. This is something I try to avoid generally because typically leads to immature, half-baked prose full of anachronisms, and this is precisely what happened with this book! I got about a quarter of the way into it and had to stop because I didn't know what I was writing about.

The research for this novel has involved learning Russian, finding oral histories written by women at the turn of the century, and watching contemporary movies.

A: That's really interesting, that you researched and wrote at the same time and found it was a weaker book because of it - does that mean you usually like to build up a full picture of the time/place before you start - and that makes the novel more coherent in some way?

I: In the case of this book, what happened is that because it was not plotted in advance (I tend not to do this), then I found myself moving towards an area for which I had no information. I believe it was the day-to-day life of St Petersburg in the early 1900s; I also needed to have some detailed plans of the Great Catherine Palace, a huge building near St Petersburg that contains a feature called the Amber Room - that Amber Room was also something I knew I had to research because some important scenes would be set there. I didn't know which scenes at the time, though.

A: You think the reader can tell when the research has not been done thoroughly beforehand rather than as/when your information needs pop up?

I: Hmm, that's a good question! I think that any writer can probably shape the impressions of a reader so much that the lack of research probably won't be noticed. At the end of the day, the writer is like a magician - you have to distract and glitz things up so the audience doesn't twig to the fairly mundane secret behind the trick.

A: Can I ask - in the case of your last novel, where did you look to find the information you needed? So where did you go to learn a bit of Russian, read oral histories, etc? How did you decide that was what you'd need to know?

I: For the Russian, I signed up for a local evening class. I studied Russian for two years. I didn't expect to learn it very well, but I felt ridiculous writing a novel set in Russia without knowing anything about the language. The oral histories showed up on Amazon. The book was out of print - 'Women Against the Tsar', I believe it's called - and described the lives of several women anarcho-bolsheviks in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Another source of information was the writer Roger Morris, who was in the process of writing novels set in the same period of history (though a little earlier). I spoke to him about oral histories and sent him links to some websites...which reminds me, the web was a very useful sources of information. I popped into one or two forums related to Tsarist Russian military uniforms to ask the experts questions about materials, colours, etc. I also looked on memorabilia sites for clothes that had been owned by people in the time period of interest - these were very good quality pictures with lavish descriptions including the correct terminology (sometimes in Russian as well as English), which is quite important when writing prose.

A: I love the fact you learned Russian - very immersive! So that's the kind of research that doesn't necessarily make it into the WIP so much as flavours it, if you like, would you say? Or in some way makes you feel more prepared to write convincingly about it? Is it the feeling that's the important part of the process there?

I: I think you hit the nail on the head with 'immersion'. I don't really trust myself to set an interesting story in a place or a time without becoming somewhat expert in it. I'm using the term advisedly, of course - there's no such in which an English bloke in 2010 is going to become an expert on pre-revolutonary Russia overnight. But I do need to get a sense of how things work, what a person would see walking down a street...In one sense, I have an advantage because my viewpoint character is a time traveller. Her perceptions, therefore, and what she finds interesting or surprising, will somewhat overlap with mine: the constant smell of gas, the disease in the streets, etc.

That said, I do have my own theory about stories. I think they exist - and should always work - if they are completely abstracted from their setting. So I think that my book should work wherever it is placed because it's a story about a person who is lost and trying to get home.

A: And also - you mentioned using books, web sources and also Roger Morris - do you have a type of source that you prefer to use, or think of as more trustworthy? How would you decide that a source is useful to you, or what reasons would make you disregard information from a source?

I: The sources I find most trustworthy are first-hand accounts because I want the details. What kind of matches are used to light a lamp? What time of day is breakfast? A detailed, pedantic diary is perfect. Books like 'Natasha's Dance' by Orlando Figes are useful because they give a broad sweep of social trends etc., but I'm not sure I want to know too much about those. Nobody in pre-revolutionary Russia knew they were about to experience Soviet rule; some even doubted the revolution would ever come. There's also a danger that history has a homogenising effect. Just because it seems very linear and inevitable today, doesn't mean it felt that way at the time.

Thanks to Ian. Top job.

4 comments:

Tim Stretton said...

Really interesting piece. More soon please!

I'm awed at the idea of spending two years learning Russian as background. That's dedication...

Dr Ian Hocking said...

Tim, that wasn't the hard bit - it's the Cossack dancing that really hurts.

Thanks for putting this up, Aliya!

Tim Stretton said...

Lucky your story is pre-revolution, or anything other 20 years' field research in a Gulag is the mark of a dilettante...

Aliya Whiteley said...

I'll put the second part up next week - thanks Ian for doing this! I think it's such an interesting part of the writing process that doesn't seem to get much attention.