Monday, 8 February 2010

You Know That Saying 'I Couldn't Get Arrested'?: Gillian Philip


I can’t think what to write about this month (‘can’t think what to write about’ being a near-pathological condition I really should be able to dissect in detail). So I’m just going to pass on a couple of cautionary tales about research.

I'll be honest, I don’t like research. It’s the one displacement activity – apart from cleaning the loos – that I don’t enjoy. I resent it for keeping me away from the story (whereas Facebook and Twitter: I don’t resent them for the same thing. It’s an innate laziness).

I tend to do detailed research after the fact, and not just because of idleness. The one time I did get into historical background in a big way, it was for a book with a background of the 16th century Scottish witch hunts (obligatory plug: FIREBRAND, published in August 2010 by Strident). I got so into my subject, I was so pleased with the depth of my research, that every syllable of it got shoehorned into the story, thereby bringing said story to a screeching halt. So, out it all came again. Just because I knew it, I didn’t have to inflict it on the reader. To paraphrase Russell T Davies, it doesn’t really matter why meteorites would miraculously burn in a vacuum; for the purposes of the story they JUST DO.

Sometimes, though, I have to know before I start writing that the whole plot or setting is actually going to work. Which is why I caught myself on the phone to the British Embassy in Paris one day, asking how far back it was set from the road and was it possible to drive a car up to the front door? The official was very polite in the circumstances, told me to forget it (in the nicest possible way), sent me a smart brochure about the Ambassador’s house and suggested I use that instead.

Impetuous is a Bad Thing to be, because after this experience, I should have known better. No, a few months later a plot occurred to me in all its perfect glory (as they do, hem hem). But no! What if my heroine had bodyguards? That would ruin everything.

So I got onto the net, found the phone number for the Cabinet Office, dialled without a second thought and asked a nice lady about security arrangements for the families of cabinet ministers. After about ten seconds I realised what a bad idea this was, but I didn't want to just, you know, hang up...

Well, at least I must have sounded reassuringly incompetent.

So there you go: a few ways not to handle your research. And what is my point? Well, I don’t really have one. But it’s an excuse for a picture of Richard Armitage.

(Above: Ros and Lucas marvel at the idiocy of authors, then go for a drink)

http://www.gillianphilip.com/

18 comments:

steeleweed said...

John Masters once remarked that you can always find out the details later. If you know too much going in, there's a tendency to feel you have to put in the book. You end up cluttered with detail that does not contribute to the story.
If you don't already know the environment well enough to set your scenes convincingly, you should not be writing in that genre.

catdownunder said...

The problem is that if you do not know enough then something will happen that should not happen or could not happen.
I have a great admiration for the late Cynthia Harnett. Each book she wrote took her about two years of research. She produced very few books but those she did produce are full of intricate details that do fit into the story.

Gillian Philip said...

I agree with John Masters about finding out the details later, steeleweed. I think you can get so bogged down in research there's a danger you'll never get round to the book.

But I don't think a genre is ever barred to you because you don't know the environment. That would be simply another version of 'Write What You Know' - the most stultifying piece of advice in fiction writing. You can learn anything - you just don't have to learn it all, in advance, in detail.

Cat, I don't know Cynthia Harnett - she sounds terrific but I balk at those words 'produced very few books'. I'm sure that worked for her, but I don't want to spend my life in research when I could be writing stories (or indeed cleaning the loo). I didn't know much about Scottish courtroom procedure when I wrote Crossing the Line, but I knew what was going to happen in the *story*. So I wrote the story, then found out the details and rewrote that chapter. It's absolutely accurate - but I didn't need to know it going in. If I had, I might well have got bogged down in procedure.

kathryn evans said...

I'm with you Gillian...you are bonkers though. Whatever ran through your head thinking that phonecall wouldn't raise alarm bells? Omg, am laughing so much...

catdownunder said...

Cynthia Harnett wrote "The Woolpack". It won the Carnegie Medal (around 1953) I think. Well worth hunting out and reading even today. It is historical fiction - about the wool trade in the Cotswolds. There is another one called "The Load of Unicorn" about Caxton. The detail is meticulous but there is also a strong story line.

Linda Strachan said...

Good Grief, Gillian. I can just imagine you having a sudden rush of black cars at your door, full of MI5 chaps with black suits and dark glasses (or is that the FBI- or just Men in Black?).
I love the research, getting to speak to interesting people, ideas for another book arriving unexpectedly from the detail. But I agree the temptation to throw it all into the book just because it was so fascinating is to be resisted fiercely.
I like to let the research 'compost' in my head until it becomes the knowledge that informs the writing, rather than being visible to the reader.

Gillian Philip said...

Oh Linda, I've just had a vision of Will Smith in RayBans appearing at my door. I'm going to let that compost in my head for a while...

Linda Strachan said...

'I resent it for keeping me away from the story (whereas Facebook and Twitter: I don’t resent them for the same thing.'

I'm not sure I'm there with you on that one, though. I find all these things far too easy to spend too much time on... then wish I had spent it writing...off to do some NOW! - writing I mean not research -

Marshall Buckley said...

I'm very much in the same boat at the moment - I need information about nuclear power stations, and I know my questions sound suspicious even though the info I need is the polar opposite of what they are thinking (i.e. not how to *stop* a nuclear power station, but how it would cope if it were the only source of power).

But I'm struggling to find a source of information, though I haven't yet phoned one of the stations directly, that is on my list of possible approaches...

I do envy those who have easy access to the information for their genre (e.g. crime writers who have good sources within the police force).

madwippitt said...

LOL Love the story about the cabinet ministers families! That is just so funny!
And absolutely re: Cynthia Harnett - brilliant stuff, loved it as a child and still as an adult. In fact I found my 80 year old stepmother reading Load of Unicorn as she'd been told it would give her a good feel for the period when studying it with one of her history groups ...

bookwitch said...

'Think before you act', or some such rubbish!

adele said...

I loved the picture from Spooks which is one of my best programmes! But research. Well, as I've said a million times before, you can't go far wrong with kitchens and bedrooms. I'm currently trying to deal with a Costume Museum. The lovely one here in Manchester basically said: we're too busy to help you though you can use us as a fictional location. So I have now written to the Textile and Fashion department of the V and A. I just want to know a few simple facts about putting on an exhibition and how you take care of things loaned, etc. I await a response. I wish I could write stories with such exciting scenarios...then Richard Armitage might appear at my door.

Linda Strachan said...

Once did have to ask an 'expert at the local museum where Pterodactyls build their nests - when writing about a time-travelling-pogo-stick.

She was, and wasn't a lot of help- said that it could be in trees or on cliffs, they don't actually know... what kind of an expert opinion is that...?
So as usual I just made it up, far more fun, anyway!

Catherine Johnson said...

Gillian you are so funny made me laugh and made me forget how stuck stuck stuck i am in the nineteenth century.
lovely xx

Bill Kirton said...

Gillian, I think these remarks are simply cover for your actual misdemeanours which will bring the real men in black to your hovel, shouting 'Release the man, the kids, and the animals and come out with your hands in the air'.

Research for me is often necessary because I know so few actual facts. When I find well-written sources, it's a pleasure to delve into them, but when it's statistics or public records, its soullessness is depressing. The trouble is that some readers of certain genres demand accuracy.

Katherine Langrish said...

very very funny!

brokenbiro said...

Loved the blog! I'm glad it isn't just me that worries about this sort of thing - I've been researching how someone might sabotage a building site and stumbled across a really subversive (but very useful) website - now I worry that alarms will have gone off in the surveilance vans and they're watching my other searches - e.g. spells for waking the dead, weapon specifications and Whitehall departments.
Also - I need to know what the inside of an Undertaker's looks and feels like but they might not let me in if I mention it's a zombie novel I'm writing!

Michael Malone said...

Gillian, yurrastar. I Love the idea of phoning up security conscious people and asking them alarming questions, while appearing like a numpty. Who can I phone?