Friday, 4 May 2012

Behind the Scenes…. Research

This is the first in a series of ‘Behind the Scenes’ posts that I’d like to do for writers and readers alike. It’s an account of how one writer constructs a novel from concept to completion and this first post is very much about concept. It’s actually the part I love the most. You see, for me, one of the best things about the whole writing process is all the fun research I do beforehand!

Some writers claim to do very little in the way of research but most I know do some in advance and more as they write the story. This is all very much on a ‘need to know’ basis. Many say they do research afterwards, in order to authenticate or flesh out already written scenes. I can see how this would be a time efficient way of working - but my approach to research is quite different as I advocate something I like to call ‘the total immersion method’.
You’ll know from previous posts about plotting that I don’t ever plan a storyline before I sit down to write, but that doesn’t mean that I’m at all unprepared. I start with two main characters and (as I write stories with a strong romantic thread) I will have already identified the conflicts, both physical and emotional, that will stand in the way of them falling deeply in love.
Once these conflicts are resolved of course, over the length of the entire story, we are led to an emotionally satisfying conclusion for both the characters and for the reader. But is it enough to simply write a ‘satisfying’ story? Fiction is all about living in another world for a while - and I’m not just talking about Sci-Fi or Fantasy genre here – but the importance of creating a realistic three dimensional setting with authentic real-life problems which relate to that setting.
I believe the best way for a writer to achieve this realism in fiction is through immersive research.
The Total Immersion Method.
I discovered this method entirely by accident while writing my first novel. I was at the penultimate chapter and my hero was in court and facing a jury. He was about to discover not only his fate but which of the two women in his life was going to stand by him. Suddenly, to my frustration, I realised that the scene wasn’t working and it was because I had no experience of actually being in a courtroom. Then something amazing happened: I was called up for jury service.
For a whole week I listened to the evidence presented and observed the formality of the setting, the tension in the room, the mannerisms of the judge, the lawyers and the barristers. It was the richest source of study for my novel I could have wished for and it taught me the true value of research. I went on to finish my scene, complete the novel, and have it immediately accepted by a publisher.
For my second novel, Bagpipes & Bullshot, I needed to know about Scottish country estate farming in order to get real perspective on what might work in my plot and what wouldn’t. So I donned my wellies and wax jacket and went out to explore the countryside and to interview farmers, gamekeepers and country estate staff. Getting out there and fully immersing myself in a real setting made my fictional one immediately come to life and revealed to me scenes and plotlines that I would never have imagined without the benefit of first-hand experience.
My third novel Reaching for the Stars is set in the world of top chefs and steamy kitchens and was, as I’m sure you can imagine, great fun to research! Interviewing Michelin starred chefs and those who cook for VIP’s and celebrities in real life gave me inside perspective and a fantastic but realistic setting for my entirely fictional novel about a gorgeous but lonely media-hounded celebrity chef with anxiety issues. Readers have said in reviews for Reaching for the Stars that they felt they were ‘transported to the scene’. All, I’m sure, not just down to this author’s overactive imagination but through her meticulous and immersive research.
Me with top chef Colin Masson

For my current work in progress, an exciting romance story about an eco-lawyer and an industrialist, my extensive research is done and the hard work of writing has now begun. But as work on this novel progresses, I’m also researching for the next book, which will be set in the wonderful world of horticulture. You see, in order to totally immerse myself in this research, I’m currently working part time hours in a fabulous independently owned garden centre - and just from my day to day real life experiences, I can already tell you that the plot ideas are flowing - and I can’t wait to get started on writing this next one too!
I’d love your thoughts on this post from the perspective of a reader, a writer, or both - so please do leave a comment and feel free to share on Twitter, Facebook etc etc.
See you next Friday!
Janice xx


Melanie said...

I love doing the research part of writing, too, but can honestly say I've never gone to the extent that you have, Janice!

Looking forward to reading your next two novels!

Sandra Davies said...

I can certainly empathise with the jury experience - WHAT a source of ideas and drama, so much so I wouldn't mind being called again. Really interesting post this.
My biggest problem with research is that I am totally crap at asking questions, so all research has to be done by osmosis.

Chris Longmuir said...

Like you, I love doing the research, but there is a limit to how much research you can do. As a crime writer maybe I should research committing a murder! Now how would I go about doing that I wonder. I also like to get inside my killer's head, particularly the disturbed ones. Probably quite a dangerous thing to research I think. On the other hand, I usually walk the streets my characters walk. I'm no use with settings I haven't actually been to. So I'll never be able to write the sort of story where the characters are cast away on a desert island (don't like sand). Historicals pose a problem as well and I'm not very good at writing about the 'landed gentry', I'm better at writing the beggar in the gutter! Maybe that's why my writing is dark. Great post though.

Mandy said...

I love this post Janice! For me it's a bit of both - some books I have written after I've visited the setting or got involved with the theme - others I have written the start of and then had to put myself in the characters shoes! Love the pic of the chef!

Sue Fortin said...

I like to write about places I've been to, particularly W.Sx where I live. Haven't gone to your lengths Janice for research but I try to find things out beforehand in a general way and then later get more specific information as the plot needs.

Thanks for the post - really interesting to see how others work.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Excellent post, Janice! I love the way you get totally involved in the research and it does pay off in your books. I'm afraid I do it on a 'need to know' basis. Even with historicals, I research a bit more as I go when necessary, although I studied history and only use periods I'm familiar with before I begin.

Bonnie Trachtenberg said...

Love the post, Janice, and it's so timely, too! I'm about to entrench myself in research for my third novel and this has given me some inspiration. I admit my first two didn't require too much research as I'd already experienced much of what I was going to write about. But this novel is a bit different. I'm looking forward to opening some new doors and seeing what lies beyond!

Anonymous said...

What a wide range of interests your research is leading you through. Makes me want to write a book about love in the Caribbean. Of course I'd have to research it thoroughly.

Linn B Halton and Lucy Coleman said...

Amazing to read how different authors approach their preparation. I think research is essential to 'make it real' but I also endorse the 'write about what you know' theory. It tends to ring true if you've been there, done it and have the tee-shirt! Hope when you were researching all those chefs you managed to sit down and enjoy the cuisine! Fab post Janice.

Old Kitty said...

Blimey!! I love your immersion methods - you went to experience these things with a plot/story in mind already! I've not strayed far from my own life/work experiences - but hopefully when I'm all rich I'd want to write a story about someone finding themselves alone in a paradise island with all the necessary amenities and mod cons of course..!! LOL! Take care

harveyblackauthor said...

It's a continuous learning process. Even well known authors are only at the standard they are at now as a result of growing into their field of writing. I find the research element key for my novels. 30% of Devils with Wings: Silk Drop content, was as a result of walking in the hills of Crete. Love the Post Janice.

Harriet Grace said...

Sounds like you've had a lot of fun, and what a great blog. It's wonderful when you can travel somewhere with a purpose, like Harvey Black walking in the hills of Crete; or meet people like with your chef, Janice. It take a lot of guts to go to unfamiliar place and ask questions. I spent an afternoon on the Features Floor of the Guardian and felt very shy of Roger Alton the then features editor, who now works for the Times and was on Newsnight the other night! I felt tongue-tied when he asked me if I had any questions, but everyone there was lovely, once I'd relaxed; and I got enough material to be able to see, hear and smell that features floor and get it into my novel, 'Cells' . Thanks for a great blog, Janice.

Nicky Wells said...

Well, they say, write what you know! So with that, you're doing an amazing due diligence. I'd been wondering whether the shifts at the garden centre served a higher purpose... I think it's amazing what you do, Janice, and the knowledge and insights you gain will clearly show in your books and give them that distinctive edge. Look forward to reading more of your progress features... XXX

Sheryl Browne said...

Research can be fun - and it's certainly educational. It can be difficult to make time for and hard work sometimes, too. I admire you, Janice, for really applying yourself to it. It shows in your writing. My upcoming release stars an Autism Assistance Dog and, even though I have considerable experience with dogs – even once long-term fostering a Pets as Therapy dog, I had no clue about assistance dogs and their training. Needless to say, research was necessary. Thoroughly enjoyable research, though, I have to say. At some point in your career, you do have to write what you DON’T necessarily know and it’s important to get the details as right as you can. Well done you! :) x

Gill Stewart said...

Really interesting post, Janice, and shows how different approaches can work for different books. I love research because it allows me to indulge my fundemental nosiness!

Janice said...

Thanks for all your interesting comments and thoughts on this post.

Melanie - yes, you can tell I love the research can't you - perhaps a little too much lol!

Sandra - the jury duty experience really was an eye-opener and all I had to do was sit there and 'absorb'!

Chris - you made me gasp! I don't advocate you actually committing a crime to research you crime novels - I'm sure there are other ways to 'get into the head of a killer' lol!

Janice xxx

Janice said...

Mandy - thank you. I interviewed lots of chefs but Chef Masson actually shared several coffee breaks with me to tell me his annedotes. He really should write a book himself one day!

Sue & Rosemary - I'm sure your way gets the book written much faster.

Bonnie - I can't wait to hear where you get entrenched for your next book!

Janice xxxx

Janice said...

Hi Annelli - oh yes, research in the Carribean could take a while methinks - and involve lots of refreshing cocktails. Now, there is a thought.... a cocktail bar owner hero on a tropical beach.... mmmm.

Yes, Linn. Indeed eating out was essential to the research for Reaching for the Stars!

Old Kitty - mmmm, perhaps that should be a cocktail bar next to a pool in a five star tropical beach resort....

Harvey - my son just left to work in Crete and I'm hoping to visit him this summer. Perhaps I too will find inspiration there ?!

Harriet - I see you have already fully embraced the 'total immersion' method yourself with your news floor research!

Janice xxxxx

Janice said...

Thanks Nicky and Sheryl!

Re the garden centre - everyone is fully aware that I'm researching and have all been so lovely and supportive. Of course, I've assured them that I don't ever write about real people - that I really do make them up. I just hope they belive me!

My boss has kindly suggested that once the book is written we have the launch at the garden centre.

How great that would be?

People really are lovely!

Janice xx