This week, in the second of a two-part article, CWC Treasurer, Suzanne McConaghy continues to tell us about the research she’s being carrying out in preparation for writing her next novel set in a different time period and a new location.
“In this follow-up article, I want to talk in more depth about how research can influence what you write’ beyond simply providing a setting. And if I remember correctly, this links in to something a speaker said a couple of meetings ago.
The second important point about research is how fertile a ground it can be for providing the writer with characters and situations. I am sure many people would say they just look things up as they write and, of course, I do this as well. But I think they may miss a trick because that’s like attaching the research after you’ve already decided exactly how the story will go. You may find yourself picking a different path if you know more.
To get the authentic atmosphere, you need to have an awareness of how things worked at that time, how people felt and what they were up against. What were the restrictions that no longer play a part in modern life? In short, you have to immerse yourself in the period. A good example of an author who drops the reader right in the middle of a period and doesn’t let you go until the very end is C.J. Sansom in Dissolution. And just in case you think he can only write about Tudor England, please do try Winter in Madrid, set in the Spanish Civil War.
To my mind, some younger novelists fall into the trap of writing something which, although technically accurate, does not feel any different from what happens today. I applaud a strong and determined heroine, for example, and this is very much at the forefront of publishers’ requirements at the moment. But she should be believable in the context. In Mediaeval times, too strong and determined and she’d probably end up being an outcast or considered a witch. You have to strike a balance between, on the one hand, making the work readable and recognisable to today’s younger readers and, on the other, transporting the reader out of modern life.
I was mapping out my novel while I was engaged in the research, so by July, I was feeling a little better about that gaping hole as I began to flesh out my main character. But, although I’m still keeping to the main story line which provides the linkage between events, many of the plot points have arisen from the research I have done – and I hadn’t even thought of them until I put my character in the situation. Of course, as soon as I began to follow a particular path, I had to do further research. This was an unintended effect.
My starting point for my Welsh novel was farming and, when I began to look closer, it was clear it would be specifically sheep-farming. What I learned provided me with many characteristics for a number of people and for one of the main protagonists.
- Winters were cruel.
- Life generally was hard, even in the summer months.
- They practised the equivalent of alpine transhumance, driving sheep down the mountains before winter and especially for lambing, and back up again for the summer. But, in contrast to their alpine counterparts, their cold, stone houses tended to be further up the mountains and the winter pastures had to be fields belonging to the farmers further down in the valleys.
- Electricity hadn’t reached all areas (more of those cold, stone houses) and this meant even landlines weren’t in use everywhere, so communications were poor.
- The massive industrial, shipbuilding and coal-mining areas along the coast from Newport to Swansea drew in youngsters from the farms who could earn so much more there.
- By the 1960s, without serious re-thinking, sheep farms would die – and already, the hard life was killing some of the farmers early. A concern for the government as well as for farmers.
- Education was valued but change was resisted.
- Many people were very poor.
- People walked miles every day.
Don’t worry, this is a novel and I am not recounting such facts in it, text-book fashion, BUT they provide colour, conflict, tension and above all, motivation for the characters. In that situation, either you’re going to escape or you’re going to fight. And there, already you have a driver for the story. This is all very useful for the writer.
Re-reading this, I can see there’s a lot more I could say. Maybe I should write a ‘how-to’ book about doing research after all. Damn – where did I put those papers?”
Suzanne McConaghy July, 2020