16 July, 2012

Honestly, Officer, I'm writing a story...

In my short writing life I've heard a lot about "writing what you know". I've also heard a lot of people dismissing that idea. If I was to write exclusively about my own experiences my novel wouldn't be much of a read: A girl grows up in a middle-class, stable family and gets a good education at nice state schools; she spends all her time not at school down at the athletics track or on cross-country courses with her team-mates; while studying hard for her science degree she gets engaged, marries straight after university and settles down in a rural village with her husband where she holds the prestigious position of the treasurer of a small independent church.

I know - you can't wait for the sequel, right?

Don't get me wrong, I am very grateful for my blessed life. I am not keen for terrible things to happen to me or my loved ones, just to boost my writing material. Besides, what about fantasy? I bet Tolkien didn't have first-hand experience of evading Ringwraiths. The point isn't to write about just what you've experienced, but to make sure whatever you do write about you have researched and/or thought-through in more detail than you could possibly need.

This of course requires a lot of googling (or ninja-like library skills - something my ex-polytechnic education didn't give me). But does anyone else wonder what would happen if their internet search history was examined by an outsider? In Notes From a Small Island, Bill Bryson says that if he ever discovered a body and was being interviewed by the police about where he was at a certain time, he might as well hold his wrists out for the cuffs straight away because there's no way he'd remember. I feel the same about my internet history.

There are plenty of harmless of things I've had to research for my writing - how to bake a Victoria Sponge Cake, for example. There are also obscure little bits of knowledge that I needed to make sure I was getting details right (because someone will spot it if I don't!). I have recently  had cause to look up the geology of the Sussex coast, the number one hits of the 80s and popular cars of 1957.

But the conflict contained within stories means you end up googling things like eating disorders, incest, dementia, World War One field hospitals and the process of kidney donation. (Not all for the same story!) I've recently read an academic paper on the causes of anencephaly in foetuses and why internet hoaxes still fool people. I've watched videos of Hitler's speeches on YouTube and researched the uses of different types of gun.

In my 'ideas' notebook I have plenty of potential storylines waiting to be transformed into a plot. One or two, however, require a working knowledge of explosives and I haven't dared google that yet, for fear of SWAT teams abseiling into my study.

So I was wondering, what are the weirdest things you've had to research for the sake of your writing (or even not for the sake of your writing)?

While you're thinking about that I'm off back to Wikipedia (don't look at me like that, we all use Wikipedia for research) to continue my study into the efficacy and side-effects of various doses of cyanide poisoning...


  1. I would say my oddest piece of research was the charitable societies that well-meaning Victorian ladies of leisure used to form, to slip into a detective novel set in that period. I came up with The National Truss Society for the Relief of the Ruptured Poor, which actually existed but which sadly I suspect readers will think I've made up!

  2. Ooooh, being a ruptured poor sounds nasty.

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  4. Sorry Chloe, can't edit comments, grr.
    Gosh, sometimes I wonder what even Rob would think to my internet history, and that sounds really dodgy...
    The worst research moment I've ever had was when studying for a university essay on the philosophy of suicide. Unfortunately one of the most useful and helpful books in the library was called 'contemplating suicide'.
    I had to go straight from the library to a prayer meeting, and at the end of the meeting I stood up and dropped my bag. All my books spilled out onto the floor, and of course, which book was right at the top, facing upwards? Yeah. So embarrassing...

    I have funny visions of SWAT descending into your study... 'Put the laptop down...' Haha

    Nari X

    1. Ha Ha - love it! (Not that some people contemplate suicide, I hasten to add). I once had to research a project about low fat food. I was an athlete at the time and so in pretty good shape and then people saw this stack of books about eating to lose weight and got all panicky that I had an eating disorder.

  5. I need to keep up with science, not in any great detail, but enough so my audience aren't going to point at my books and say I have no idea what I'm on about.

    My latest discovery is that Gravity doesn't actually exist. No, I don't understand it either and I've read the piece four times. Maybe in time I'll get it.

    1. Let me know if you ever work that one out!

  6. I did a lot of occult research and watched a documentary on the true history of zombies in Africa for my kids novel about a zombie dog - and of course all of that information maybe influenced two lines in the whole novel :)

    Right now I'm into 1939 mode and my family are getting sick of all the 30's ditties playing in our house and in the car.

  7. This isn't weird, it's just something I'm totally unfamiliar with: strippers. For one of my adult contemporary (temporarily shelved) novels, I had to look up exotic dancing. I learned a lot.

  8. Hmmmm... my computer has suddenly stopped letting me reply to specific comments! So...

    Charmaine - You can come and write in my house! I love 1930s music. The only good thing about doing a tonne of research and only using an ounce is that at least you feel productive while doing the research. I tend to save up research for days when my muse has left me!

    Suzi - I bet you did! You probably learned more than you ever wanted to!

    My husband and I were trying to buy a tent once from the outdoor retailer Blacks. Their web address is blacks.co.uk but we didn't know and guess that it was .com instead. I DO NOT reccommend going on the website we ended up on!

  9. I saw that book about gravity not existing in my local library and I was going to take it out, but it was hovering up by the ceiling and I just couldn't reach it. I'm sure it's a load of bunkum anyway.


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