Research to Stimulate Creativity 1

Suzanne-McConaghy 2

Suzanne McConaghy

This week, in the first of a two-part article, CWC Treasurer, Suzanne McConaghy introduces us to the research she’s being carrying out in preparation for writing her next novel set in a different time period and a new location.

“I noticed a couple of weeks ago, Elizabeth Ducie was advocating we try something new to stimulate creativity: Stepping Outside My Comfort Zone. Inadvertently, I seem to have done exactly this.

One of the plus points of Lockdown has been the amount of time it’s freed up – how many coffees did I drink and how many groups did I attend before? So, lockdown meant I finished a number of things and am now preparing them for publication.

But it was immediately obvious I’d been left with a large hole in my life: not a single protagonist in imminent danger of death to follow through dark alleys, no young adult with whom to exult on the top of a mountain when internet contact was re-established; no child of the Dark Ages to help battle against an evil, shape-changing monster. In short, I’d been living for a long time with the characters in my books and now, they were gone. Things have got serious when you feel bereaved by the departure of fictitious characters.

But I didn’t want to start another thriller before I got the current ones out into the world. Instead, I would write a completely different kind of novel. I did have something in mind, a story about a girl, based on a short conversation forty years ago when I was a guest on a farm in Colombia. We sipped our rum-and-lemons on a blessedly cool veranda as a blood-red sun sank dramatically below the horizon, and my hostess told me what had happened to her about fifteen years earlier.

I suddenly remembered this in May this year and I leapt on it. There was my new protagonist. Perfect.

But what has this to do with research? Hadn’t I now solved the problem? Unfortunately, not. You see, this new story required me to set three-quarters of the action in Wales. Of course, that shouldn’t be difficult for someone who’s spent a large part of her life within thirty miles of the Welsh border, gone on visits, even taken part in expeditions in the mountains, AND has a sister-in-law who’s Welsh.

But it is. I simply don’t know Wales. Really. I don’t know what it is – or rather, it was – like to live there. Yes, the added complication is that it’s set in the 1960s. I can almost hear some of your thoughts at this point – probably, ‘Well, doesn’t she remember the 60s? Come on, didn’t she live through them?’ No, I don’t, not clearly.

You see where this is going. I had to do some research.

So, I got down to it and it kept me occupied until the end of June. During those six weeks, I consulted books, maps, old photographs, timetables, menus and posters, listened to some audio and talked to people (about the 60s, not Wales). Of course, I used the internet and made quite a few notes on what I found there. And, although it’s extremely annoying to look up ‘1960s clothes’ and then receive adverts trying to sell you vintage dresses for the next ten weeks (maybe ten years, for all I know), the internet is a fabulous tool.

In retrospect, there are two important aspects to doing research. The first is how fascinating it can be – with the result that you get carried away and waste time. We’ve all heard that before. So, my advice is, don’t make beautifully-expressed notes in a lovely notebook on thick, creamy pages with a gold-nibbed pen. Why? Because, honestly, they won’t be good for anything else. Even if you use the same setting in another story, you want your work to feel fresh. I’m lucky. I have access to stacks of old architect’s files we no longer need to archive, so I use the back of some very good-quality paper. Oh, and the odd architect’s description has come in useful from time to time.

Okay, second thoughts on this: perhaps you’re super-organised and think you may want to write a ‘how-to’ book on doing research that you’ll base on your notes. Good luck with that but personally, I just want to throw it all out once I’ve used it.

What kind of research did I do? To date, I have looked into the following:

  • Landscape. Large-scale OS maps were helpful and helped me insert some fictitious places. I found google earth useful, too.
  • Climate and weather at particular times of year – I can assure you, Torquay is quite different from the top of a Welsh mountain in the depths of winter, so don’t make any assumptions.
  • Local economic activity – this led me to sheep-farming which became central to my story.
  • Local politics.
  • Transport, especially trains.
  • Increased/decreased use of the Welsh language.
  • Social life and attitudes in rural communities.
  • Music and fashion of the 1960s.
  • 1960s slang.
  • Horses in both Colombia and Wales. Thank you, Celia, for helping me with equine matters.

If you haven’t had to do this type of research before, I hope the list above will give an idea of the breadth that may be required. Undoubtedly, I will have left something out.

I discovered that a lot of things happened in the 60s. A lot of things changed. There was a seismic turning over of the old social order. You have to question everything – when did it happen exactly? Where? Who was affected? What was the reaction of the different sections of society? Despite being a ‘child of the 60s,’ do you think I was able to answer any of those questions without help? Certainly not.

NOTE: Did any of you grow up in South Wales generally, or in Newport? I would very much appreciate some insider information or, eventually, a Beta reader who could confirm whether or not it all rings true. That’ll be when I’ve finished, of course, as far as the Beta reader is concerned – twenty-one thousand words in, at the moment.”

Suzanne McConaghy July, 2020

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