Monday 15 February 2021

Eureka! A WIP breakthrough via creative research - by Rowena House

For a year now, for family and Covid reasons, the castles of my story have been out of reach. So have the hills and the streets where my characters walked in real life. It’s been tough trying to write their story without the inspirational, tactile, lived experience of place.

Research and planning have, to a degree, filled the gap, alongside repetitive drafting of potential opening scenes. Overall, though, the process has been frustrating.

But as they say, nothing in writing is wasted.

At four o’clock on Sunday morning, Valentine’s Day, my subconscious decided to prove the point by revealing a 3D image of story: a way to perceive and to manage the relationship between historical research, structural planning and a dual narrative.

Hurrah! The dual narrative especially has been a major stumbling block.

For once, it’s clear where this eureka moment came from: the week I’d spent drafting this blog about creative research, thinking deeply but tangentially about the story.

The subject of research always seems to be a bit of a Pandora’s Jar (to borrow a phrase from Natalie Haynes). In historical fiction, research has a reputation as a time-suck, an opportunity to procrastinate when you should be getting down to the serious bum-on-seat business of storytelling.

The trick, I decided, after researching research, is to set its creative limits.


Let me quote something on the subject from Robert McKee’s Story. It echoes advice about the freedom on knowing your limitations which I first heard from David Almond who got it in turn from Flannery O’Connor. Here’s McKee:

 “Limitation is vital. The first step toward a well-told story is to create a small, knowable world ... By the time you finish the last draft, you must possess a commanding knowledge of your setting in such depth and detail that no one could raise a question about your world—from the eating habits of your characters to the weather in September—that you couldn’t answer instantly.”

You can find more about his thoughts on this on pages 71-76 of Story (in my 1997 edition, at least).

Accepting this passage as a starting point, the purpose of creative research is, therefore, to build a profound knowledge of a tight, intimate story world: “a limited world and a restricted cast offer the possibility of knowledge in depth and breadth.” That’s McKee again.

To win the war on cliché takes research, he says, and “the time and effort to acquire knowledge”. So let’s call this Research of Knowledge.

Research of Knowledge clearly applies to the ‘external’ content of a story: its historical or contemporary socio-economic and cultural contexts. It also relates to exploration of the themes and truths the story is aiming to convey: the psychology of its characters, and the realism that makes a work of literature authentic and artistically true.

For McKee, Research of Knowledge also includes close examination of received life experiences, the emotionally and psychologically important events that feed our creativity; he calls that research of memory and research of imagination.

For me, Research of Knowledge also encompasses the craft of storytelling. I’m not sure if McKee applies it this way as I’ve not read Story in full for several years, but logically I think he must. Studying Story, and other craft books like it, is, after all, research.

Research of Knowledge is distinct from the pursuit of facts, not least because facts are increasingly problematic in an age of Trumpian alternative facts, online anti-vaxx conspiracies and suppression of Freedom of Information requests.

Sure, we can all accept that at sea level, water boils at 100 degrees centigrade. But how many people died during atrocities committed by European empires? Even asking the question is political.

As the Irish President Michael Higgins put it this week in an article about the centenary of the partition of Ireland, published in Britain in The Guardian:

In my work on commemoration, memory, forgetting and forgiving I have sought to establish a discourse characterised by what the Irish philosopher Richard Kearney calls ‘a hospitality of narratives’, acknowledging that different, informed perspectives on the same events can and do exist. The acceptance of this fact can release us from the pressure of finding, or subscribing to, a singular unifying narrative of the past.”

In other words, searching for a single, simplistic set of facts about us, the human race, and the fate of our planet, risks tipping us into worlds of conflicting, subjective realities. 

A search for facts necessarily becomes a search for truth, which is whole different ballgame, one that seems to me to lie at the heart of many debates in our writing community: debates about Own Voices, diversity, and the economics of who gets to write what and how it’s published, to name but a few.

Researching knowledge, therefore, must be sensitive and careful. It can’t just ask, what do we know about X? It must also ask, how do we know it, and can we trust that source?

Which makes creative research a form of critical thinking.

Critical thinking about sources was a cornerstone of research in my former life as a journalist and is embedded in my present genre of historical fiction, too. A historiographer asks: who wrote this account, with what purpose, and whose voices were silenced in the telling? The imagination is then set to work filling knowledge gaps.

But critical thinking seems to me to be a good starting point for any genre. And life in general. Anyhow...

In terms of character building, creative research into our knowledge about psychology is a smorgasbord of ideas whatever the genre. Personally I’m addicted to articles in the New Scientist about psychotherapy, neuroscience, the study of belief systems, and the impacts of trauma on the mind.

In craft terms, creative research into story structure is a sure-fire way to avoid tired formulae and to discover workable new forms. (Hat tip to Linda Aronson again.) Star Wars is nigh on half a century old! High time, imho, to nick the best bits of the Hero’s Journey and move on.


I could go on about researching voice, language, rhythm, lexicons for individual characters, like operatic leitmotifs. But I’ll resist.

There is, however, one area of creative research which I do think it’s worth reflecting on. For this post, let’s call it Research of Self.

It’s something I think a lot of us do, in writing journals or quiet corners of our heads. It’s over and above the sort of research of memory and research of imagination that McKee talks about.

On the MA in writing for young people at Bath Spa we were encouraged to do it via critical analyses of our course WIPs, a part of our creative practice I didn’t really get it at the time, being more focussed on the product of imagination – the story – than the process of writing it. 


I now recognise that was my loss: a lesson taught by a collection of unfinished Books Two, still-born stories lost at different stages of gestation, now bottled in formaldehyde and sitting on a high shelf. Why didn’t you finish us, they seem to ask.

Research of Self might help me to answer them.

This form of research considers both how we write (our process) and why we write: our motivations and intentions.

For The Goose Road, for example, I now know that sheer lust to be published played a big part in getting me to The End. A supportive, enabling environment was also essential (big shout out to friend from the MAWYP, GEA, SCBWI and BookBound as always). This environment is something I’m trying to emulate via writing friendships, these blogs and a PhD.

The subject of World War I was another factor that kept me going with The Goose Road. I’d shied away from this horrific part of human history as a young adult, at school and at university. Now I had the maturity to face it, and – with help – the skill to recreate it for a new generation. That made the five years from inception to publication worthwhile. It also made shouting about it online feel okay, not arrogant or naff. 


I’ve yet to pinpoint the deep, visceral appeal of the current WIP. Its charm is long-standing – the basic idea is perhaps ten years old – but do I have to write this story? I hope so.

Which leads to intention, the other big topic for Research of Self.

What is the underlying driver behind writing this story and not another? What intuitive, subconscious influences are at work? Is there a better story hidden under the surface of the story I think that I’m telling?

Readers of earlier blogs in this series about the WIP will recognise Hisham Matar’s voice in that last paragraph.

As mentioned here last month, research for the current WIP isn’t a discreet phase of the process. All stages go hand in hand, feeding off each other and into each other: planning, drafting, editing, research.

Research in all its forms will be as broad and as deep as it needs to be, and revisited as often as necessary. This, happily, avoids the question: at what point do you stop researching and let the story flow? Lord knows if it will work, but it’s a plan. And I haven’t got another one.

Please do let me know your thoughts on research and on writing in general. They’ll be super welcome as always. Talking about stories with other writers is the best research of all.


Twitter: @HouseRowena

Facebook: Rowena House Author





Anne Booth said...

That's so interesting. I want to write a novel for adults based in nineteenth century England and Ireland, and I am thinking of trying to read books my heroine would have read as a child, with the idea that they will have helped form her. But I am not sure if I am making my job more and more complicated.

Where are you doing your PhD?

Rowena House said...

Hi Anne It sounds like an innovative and fantastic way into a character, one I'm exploring too in a way. I've got an anthology of 17th century fiction to try to get into a personal literary mindset of the time (though it's not helped much as yet). More useful have been the plays of Shakespeare and Webster and Johnson, which illustrate how broad and sophisticated ideas were back then. Not all religion and Reformation. And not wat I'd associated with the early 17th century. So I'd say go for it! But then I'm fond of complication. It seems more real than artistic clarity.

I'm doing my PhD at Plymouth so I can stay close to home. I'd hoped to do one at Bath Spa but couldn't get the funding. Without travel or accommodation costs, I can self-fund. Also, I like the vibe at Plymouth. It's young and urban - except now, when everywhere's a ghost town. xx