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