Tuesday, 31 May 2011

How Writers Research #2

So, back to the conversation I had with Ian Hocking about how he conducts research for his novels. We discussed how he gets started, and to what lengths he'll go to inject a sense of realism; it turns out Ian is prepared to learn to speak Russian, and also to give and get information from other novelists. Writing is not quite the solitary pursuit it's made out to be. The second and last part of the interview starts with how to find relevant sources:

A: You mentioned 'broad sweep' books and how there's a danger there in homogenising the writing, (putting in a perspective that couldn't possibly exist for the character?) - but first hand accounts are more helpful. Where would you go to track down these first hand accounts? A library, or the internet, for instance?

I: Well, I probably would have benefitted from talking to a librarian but I decided to start with Amazon. I know that they have lots of used paperbacks that I could search easily. That's how I came up with 'Five sisters: Women against the Tsar'. However, I did use the library here at Canterbury Christ Church to find books on communist theory (...which reminds, I also downloaded audiobooks from Audible.co.uk on Marxism and long-term Russian history stretching all the way back to the Russ).

A: Does most of your research get conducted at home in front of your computer, say, or do you go elsewhere?

I: Largely in front of my computer or in my office. I picked up a couple of books from the library at Christ Church, but in the main everything came to me.

A: And to go back to talking to Roger Morris about Russia - can I ask, does a conversation like that take the form of an email conversation, or did you meet him face to face first? Is it a case of him recommending sources to you, or giving you information directly? And would you find that information (from another writer directly) more or less trustworthy, do you think, than from a textbook, say, or a first-hand account?

I: This was partly an email conversation but we also chatted at the launch of hot new book from a Devonian author. Then it was mostly email. I asked Roger for some recommendations - he came up with Orlando Figes's book, 'Natasha's Dance' - and also recommended 'Five sisters' to him. He didn't give me any information directly, though he probably would have if I asked. I think Russia itself is too vast a topic to bother talking about it other email - particularly when you're not sure what will turn out to be useful.

Over to the Devonian author...

A: When do you feel satisfied that you've done enough research?

I: I don't think I've ever felt satisfied with research. There's always something that you've handled wrong. With specific regard to a novel, where you're dealing with the representation of lived experience, there's no way everything is going to ring true. A phrase might be wrong; or a train line that you thought was there in 1904 wasn't built until 1910, or some such. I'd go as far as to say that if I ever had that feeling of satisfaction, I'd be losing my grip on reality. ...Unless the novel was heavily autobiographical, of course.

A: So when might you stop researching, even though there's no moment of satisfaction?

I: Hmm, that's a good question. I would never stop volitionally. It would come when the book is published. Since the book we're talking about is not yet published, I haven't really stopped researching it even though the book has been mellowing on my hard drive for a year. There's always something rattling around my head and that I realise I can put it in. Typically, I realise it would be cool if I could include a particular fact - such as the bridges of St Petersburg rising in unison during the night, or the horse-drawn taxi drivers standing up and bowing to the road-side shrines as they clatter past - and then go back to the book and drop it in.

A: And what would you recommend to a new author as a method of conducting research?

I: Zoinks - that's a difficult one. I think research is a battle on many fronts. You need to use physical and nonphysical sources, curated and non-curated...but the most important thing is to start broadly and get narrow later. Follow your interests because these will probably be informed by an idea of where your story will go, even if you've not consciously aware of it. In terms of research in general, you must do it - because of all the things that might lead to writer's block, running out of 'road' will be the thing that inhibits the writing more than anything.

Again, many thanks to Ian for being my guinea pig, and best of luck with the new Saskia Brandt book, Flashback (available now on the Kindle).


Andy said...

The major thing, from my experience, about writing is that it needs to be "real" to the reader.

Dr Ian Hocking said...

I agree, Andy - whatever the research process (lots or none), that should be the goal. And keeping in just enough to create this impression for the reader is a real skill - often found wanting in 'research porn' novels.

Aliya Whiteley said...

'Research porn' - what a brilliant term! Am working it into my dissertation.

Dr Ian Hocking said...

To say nothing of the infodumps.