Research - before or after you write the story?
Updated: Sep 10, 2019
I used to suppose that when you write a book, if you went about things the proper way, you should do some research first. It meant going to the library, sitting in the loneliest spot, reading musty old books.
I've always been a fan of the library but struggled with non-fiction - where's the plot?
I wrote the very first very rough draft of The Wonder Girls in one month, November 2014 during Nanowrimo. With a writing target of 1667 words a day to meet the 50,000 word 30 November goal, there was no time for research. Great, an excuse! Another excuse, which I've been trying to find all weekend, is a quote about or by Ian Rankin, I think, which says that he writes the story first then does the research. If you know it, please do comment with a link!
So I came up with ideas for my historical story that I felt were plausible but I had no idea whether or not they were actual history. I told myself that I wasn't so much writing an historical novel but a novel in a historical setting and besides if it all turned out to be ridiculous, I'd just call it fantasy!
But to my astonishment, with that first rough draft hot on my laptop, I discovered that what author friend Matt Killeen later told me was so true - that if you think up something horrible to do with the Nazis - they probably thought of it first.
The policy of Lebensborn is strongly rumoured to have involved kidnapping children with Aryan features to further the Nazis' 'master' race. It was with a weird mix of horror and, I'm ashamed to say, delight, that what I had hit on had actually happened. Maybe not in Nettlefield, my fictional version of Fareham, on the south coast between Southampton and Portsmouth, but it had happened somewhere in Europe. And besides, further post story research confirmed that not only the Nazis shipped children to other parts of the world in some horrible misguided attempt to hone the human race. The shipping of British children to Australia and the enforced adoption of aboriginal children are just two other examples of this sort of activity.
The drawback of doing lots of research before you write the story is the very strong temptation to show off your knowledge and include far too much of it in the narrative. But as I wasn't alive in the 1930s, I did need to get some kind of feel for the period in order to write it. So I drew on memories of my mum and dad, who born in 1922 and 1914 were much older than most parents of kids of my generation. With the old wooden box wireless radio, the absence of a phone or a car, as a child I sometimes used to feel like I grew up in the 1930s too. To get this period feel, particularly for dialogue, I also watched old black and white films, and imagined everything tinged with sepia. It seemed to work.
So as well as indulging in old movies and drawing on memories of family, it turned out that more recent subconscious memories archived somewhere in tmy brain also threw up some interesting plot points.
There's a chase at the end of the story, involving a tugboat, which I chose to call The Calshot - I thought I'd made the boat up until the live-in technical support reminded me about The Calshot Spit Lightship preserved outside Ocean Village in Southampton. It's been an age since I've seen it but I obviously archived the memory. It's actually an obvious name here in Southampton. Calshot is a coastal village on the corner of The Solent and Southampton Water, where lots of kids groups are taken for the indoor dry ski slope and other sporty adventures.
But not only is there a boat called The Calshot, there is actually a tugboat called Calshot too, which a local group is currently trying to save from scrap. In the Facebook group for the campaign, a member posted the footage from 1936, the year of my story, that I've included in this post. It features a short segment, which is like watching a scene from my book. It was so exciting to see something that is so similar to what I'd imagined. I don't think it would have been half as exciting if I'd seen it before writing the story. It's just a short segment; I hope you'll read my story to see what I mean.
Since writing and rewriting The Wonder Girls, over and over, I've done lots of research and fact checking and I've really enjoyed it. I have to confess much has been via the Internet – we are so lucky to have this resource.
Some discoveries have prompted more rewriting. And some of the questions I had have persistently remained unanswered. So I just have to hope that any older readers will be kind, suspend their disbelief, and just enjoy the story.
For me, research remains an after story job. So what I'm going to do, in the first week after my publication date of 4th October, with at least one of my shiny new paperbacks, is visit the library.