Yesterday I took myself off to a local landmark called Spurn Point – a sliver of sand and grass hanging off the southernmost edge of the East Yorkshire coast. I went there, not because I wanted to skive off but because I needed to experience the atmosphere. I wanted to understand what it felt like to stand on this sand spit, with an angry sea on three sides, the wind howling down all other sounds, rain and sleet lashing at my face. I’m no masochist and nor do I wish to die for my art – I just like to research my writing and sometimes the only way I can do it is to experience what I’m writing about.
I enjoy doing the research – apparently many writers don’t. But I love where it can take me, what I can learn and how it can add that touch of authenticity to my work. I divide research into two types – outward bound like yesterday and deskbound when I’m on the PC, reading or in a library.
My outward bound research covers observing, doing and interviewing. So, I visit places, museums, country houses, gardens and so on. I take a camera and notebook and, most important, a list of questions for which I need to get answers. Sometimes I’ll interview an expert and it’s amazing how people will give of their time. For example, recently I’ve interviewed a poker champion, a lady who trains animals for TV and film work, an expert on Daphne du Maurier and my GP to get some medical info. On the same lines I’ve spent a day on a grouse moor working as a beater and done a stint with a hill shepherd during lambing time. All of this gave me some great material for magazine articles and short stories.
Deskbound research, particularly on a cold, snowy February day is an attractive proposition. The quantity of information off the Net can be a bit daunting and the quality of some of it throws up warning signals. However, I find the real risk with www. is the way links lead to links and to more links and I lose myself in a mass of fascinating yet irrelevant facts and figures. For all of that it’s a million times preferable to those readers they used to have (maybe still do) in libraries. I remember spending hours bent over one reading old newspapers to get material for some work I was doing on the Luddites. I blame my poor eyesight on them.
Research offers added value too – not only does it open a window on worlds I know nothing about, it also provides ideas for more writing and prods my sluggish imagination into action.
Now where did I put my specs?
*Title quote from Werner von Braun