I wouldn’t like to be a celebrity, but there are times when it would be useful to have a name like JK Rowling or Stephen King. Why? Because it’s one thing to do research for a story when you’re a household name: it’s quite another when you’re a new author.
“Hello. I’m Mary Higgins Clark. Could you spare me a couple of hours to explain how your village set up its wind farm, please? … Yes, I’d love to spend a whole day with you if you’re sure you have the time.”
This sounds far better than: “Hello. I’m an unknown writer. Can you waste your time by telling me about your wind farm for my story, please? There’s nothing in it for you, and my book will probably never be published. …What? You’re too busy?”
Obviously, I’d never say that. I’ve usually found people to be very generous with their time – particularly the lovely French mayor who explained her wind farm project to me for my ‘Red Cat Girl’s Gone’ novel. She took me to admire her turbines. And I didn’t even have to pretend I was JK Rowling.
When I was writing commissioned feature articles, research was no problem. I could give people publicity in exchange for their time – and I was proud to represent a magazine with a good reputation.
For fiction research it’s different. The key is to convince yourself that your cause is important; that you are justified in requesting an interview. People like to talk about their activities. I love listening to people who have a passion for their subject – no matter what it is. And if the person I target for an interview doesn’t want to talk to me, I tell myself that it probably wouldn’t have been a worthwhile interview.
The way I do research depends on the story I want to write. When I already have a story to tell and I just need to research for context, it can be a burden. I find out enough to ensure that my story is realistic, and then check the detailed facts after the first draft.
Sometimes the research matter is integral to the story. Ideas rise out of the research notes. This is exciting. In my short story ‘Ami, entends-tu?’ I wanted to write something historical about a particular region of France. This was the spur to discovering the wartime Resistance activities in the area – something I’d never otherwise have learned about.
Often the story changes completely and you don’t exploit your hours of research. For a recent writers’ exercise we had to write about a tea caddy. I knew nothing about tea, so I spent some absorbing hours learning about Chinese provinces. It was fascinating. But when I sat down to type the story, I ended up writing about a man who is so attached to the sea that he can only travel in his imagination. I trust that my research will be useful at some point – even if it is only to order Tie Guan Yin in a salon de thé.
Some writing guides tell you to write about what you know. But if you restrict yourself to your own knowledge, you deprive yourself of one of the most fulfilling aspects of writing.
Go on: find the people who are willing to help you, even if you’re not JK Rowling. Get on the phone. Enjoy!