By the seat of the pants
Any writer will know the importance of research. Some love it, others not. There are those who conduct a great deal, sometimes so much that it gets in the way of the actual story, and once completed they feel the need to drag every last drop of information into their book, to its detriment. I’m most definitely not one of these, but the sort identified as of the ‘magpie’ variety I once read about: writers who thieve bits of information here and there and cobble together enough background to add some depth to their narrative. As essentially a panser writer – one who likes to write by the seat of the pants – this badge of office has generally suited me well. For me writing has been about getting on with the job, living and breathing life into my characters, and enjoying the journey.
Much greater detail
However, just as the pansing process must give way to plotting at some stage in the proceedings for things to work well, so must the magpie approach give way to more thorough, hands-on research. Even though I deliberately choose to write about subjects that I can easily identify with, there is always a certain amount of research required, and sometimes a great deal more, when characters experience things in my stories that must be studied in depth, in order for the plot to work effectively and sound plausible. Apart from the satisfaction gained by getting facts right, it’s wise to avoid criticism from readers who are able to spot discrepancies. That’s when research needs to take place in much greater detail.
The best way to research in more depth is by talking to those in the know, I’ve found. From legal help, heavy metal music to modern technology, I’ve been lucky to be able to enlist support from acquaintances and friends who have professional experience or general knowledge of such matters, certainly enough for my purposes. Particularly on holiday, when I’ve been staying with friends in situations where I’ve also managed to create fun writing retreats for myself away from home, it’s been possible to ask others their opinions on certain subjects, in passing. This kind of research has taken place in some beautiful places such as LA, Burgundy in France, and Perthshire, Scotland. Assisted by inspiring scenery, their help, however small in some cases, has proved invaluable.
More recently, I have made two trips to the south of England from my home town of Edinburgh. The first was to Kent, to stay with an old friend, a retired physiotherapist. It occurred to me that she could help me with some medical details concerning injuries sustained by a baddie in my story, when his motorbike collides with an oncoming car. Anxious to make him suffer as much as possible, and get his just desserts, we fell about laughing over a pub lunch together, as we worked out the kind of problems he would suffer – enough to make his life an ongoing living hell, with time to reflect upon his misdemeanours. This also meant resorting to drawing diagrams, to show how the impact would cause the evil motorcyclist to fall from his bike, land in a certain position and sustain appropriate wounds.
Just over a week later I was down south again, this time in the lovely county of Hampshire, also visiting friends. Apart from meeting up with other friends and family members over the days I was staying there, and doing some sightseeing, I was also able to conduct more research. Very conveniently, my friend’s husband is a keen motorcyclist and has a blue metallic motorbike parked at the end of the garden. Before the covers were taken off for me to view this appealing specimen, we discussed at great length a previous fatal accident that had taken place, also involving the same character. At first I was greatly disheartened, discovering that my original scenario wasn’t going to work at all. But I was determined to find a solution, and so was he. Over some considerable time we redrew the street map, and explored the logistics. We even walked it through, imaging the scene, with a running commentary from my helper, testing out a theory which would make sense. It was great fun and we had lots of laughs. More importantly though, copious notes, assisted by the diagram, took place. Next step: to alter my descriptions! At least they’ll be believable.
I was away!
In the end the motorbike covers came off. I was invited to swing my leg over the saddle and sit astride the machine. This I politely declined to do, preferring instead to let my guide demonstrate matters for himself, and show me parts of the motorbike that I needed to make a note of. I was away! – not on the motorbike, but with my writing. So the act of research need not be arduous at all, I’ve learned. It’s simply a matter of getting on your bike (although not literally in my case!) – even travelling around the globe, to do so.