When you think of researching a novel, what do you think of?
For me, the first thing that comes to mind is the verifying of details – historical, biographical or geographical, for example. I imagine that depending on genre, there is more or less of this kind of research required. I suppose historical fiction writers to be at one end of the scale, and those who write fantasy at the other. I feel I sit somewhere in the middle. Most of what I write is imaginary and doesn’t need research as such, but there are a few elements that need to be checked to ensure they are accurate (I usually do this once the first draft is done).
But I have discovered that for me at least there is also another kind of research: the sensory immersion into the the world I am describing.
I still remember a scene in the film City of Angels that really stuck with me. Seth asks Maggie to describe the taste of a pear:
Seth: What’s that like? What’s it taste like? Describe it like Hemingway.
Maggie: Well, it tastes like a pear. You don’t know what a pear tastes like?
Seth: I don’t know what a pear tastes like to you.
Maggie: Sweet, juicy, soft on your tongue, grainy like a sugary sand that dissolves in your mouth. How’s that?
Seth: It’s perfect
How do you describe the taste of a pear to someone if you have never tasted one before? And, more importantly, how would your characters describe it?
Although in The Night Rainbow the locations are imaginary, I spent hours and hours in the places that inspired them, soaking up the smells, the tastes, the sounds… I found the immersion in those elements vital to carrying the sense of place and the sense of character in the novel.
In the novel I’m working on at the moment, I recently found that my imagination was only taking me so far. There was something tangible missing in my understanding of my protagonist. A large part of the story is set on a peniche – a house boat – and although I’ve seen plenty, and been onboard peniches converted into restaurants, pleasure boats and so on, it’s been twenty years since I was in an actual house boat, and that was on the Thames in Oxford, not on the Canal du Midi. I couldn’t feel it, smell it, hear it… I was longing to climb into the story and actually experience it through my character’s eyes.
I was fortunate enough to find a friend of a friend who grew up on a peniche, and I recently arranged to meet her mother, to see if she could help. She took me to see her boat, and we spend a wonderful evening chatting about her experiences of life on the water. The stories and the way she recounted them details really helped bring my character to life. I began to feel him, much more intimately than before.
This kind of ‘sensory research’ doesn’t need to be exotic, remote or expensive. I have great admiration for writers who can describe familiar places or situations in a way that makes the reader feel they are discovering it for the first time. Like the smell of a bonfire, or the taste of a pear.
Can you remember a writer who has impressed you in that way? How do you balance the imaginary with ‘research’ in your writing?