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, Candice, 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?