“I’m not a pyschopath, Anderson, I’m a high functioning sociopath. Do your research.”
~ Sherlock, “A Study In Pink”, BBC (2010)
Always do your research. Otherwise you’ll find yourself being snapped at by Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and that would, obviously, be tragic. Although, I wouldn’t mind that much. I mean, fictional characters TALKING to me? Who spiked my drink and where do you get that stuff from?
As everybody knows, the key to writing a realistic and generally more interesting novel is to do research. It doesn’t matter whether your novel is a modern crime novel or a historical romance: you’re going to have something you need to look up. By the way, what is the difference between an Inspector and a Detective Inspector? Anyone who knows, leave a comment.
But I digress.
Research is very important, from world building to clothing to social hierarchies, and when I was asked to join in with St Mallory’s Forever I knew I was going to have to do some work. I had several issues to investigate:
- I didn’t know anything about life in a boarding school, and it wasn’t really fair to leave all of that to Charley, though we would probably go to her for reference on any point anyway.
- I had read very few mystery/crime/detective novels and didn’t know quite how they worked out. I’d also never written one.
- The idea of writing as blog posts or diary entries or letters was something that I hadn’t done in about six years and I couldn’t see how it could read as a coherent narrative without sounding forced or incongruous with what it was supposed to be (the blogs of three teenagers who all think they’re the only ones blogging about this and so cannot refer to each other’s posts or miss things out themselves… always a challenge!).
The first was relatively easy to solve. I asked Charley lots and lots of questions.
Actually, I didn’t have to ask her all that many, because when I first found out she was at a boarding school I interrogated her quite thoroughly, until she gave me a rough timetable and everything, just to shut me up (so, nothing’s changed…*grin*). I was also so intrigued I went on her school website and read up on it. That’s not stalkerish, because she went on mine too.
In addition to this, I’d been doing some research into vocational ballet training, such as the Royal Ballet School or the English National Ballet School. The RBS in particular has some really great information in their ‘documentation’ on the website, including approximate timetables, rules, and details of rooms. This was very helpful for getting an alternative perspective.
More recently, I was on a course with the Royal Artillery Band and while hanging out in the rest area of the band block, I was perusing the stacks of army-related magazines and found one entitled “The Service Parent’s Guide To Boarding Schools”. Although this didn’t give me particular information that I didn’t already know, it was very useful to look at what army families would want in a school, and what activities there were relating to that sort of world within schools. Since boarding schools are very often populated by a lot of ‘army brats’ (Charley’s words, not mine), this seemed like something to remember when working on St Mallory’s, as students whose parents are soldiers are quite likely to be at the school and should be mentioned.
So, the first one was pretty much nailed. I knew about timetables, uniforms, rules and regulations, dormitory layouts, House arrangements, sports activities, grades and Ofsted reports, and Forces discounts.
Next we had my lack of mystery reading / crime reading / detective stories etc. Easily solved. Work on St Mallory’s resumed right in the middle of my Sherlock obsession, just after series two of the BBC series had finished and I was consoling myself by reading all of the books, one after the other in totally the wrong order. I knew how detectives worked, obviously. We were doing well.
As for writing as blog posts, although my own are very rarely narratives, one of the blogs I read has some really good examples. The blog is My Pajama Days and she often writes her posts as mini stories almost, with dialogue and description. This was a really interesting style to study when considering how to work on this project. There are other blogs I could name, but to share them all would be to reveal what an odd combination of interests I have… ha ha!
It’s also something you learn by doing. I write for a blog. In fact, I write for three blogs – four if you count the guest posts I sometimes do for Mark Williams International. My own blog is Miriam Joy Writes, but I also have a book blog, Books – Lost and Found, and then there’s this. My blogging style now is very different from how it was when I started, so I’m developing a ‘voice’ that I hope comes through (although not too much!) in the characters we write.
Research can be anything, though. When writing one of my novels (still a WIP, after two years), I was constantly referring to ‘A Guide To Irish Mythology’. Another novel needed much highlighting of passages in ‘The Pagan Celts’, a great resource. I wrote tonnes of notes on old Celtic legends from several websites, too.
I’ve had conversations with ex policemen on NaNoWriMo forums about how the Force works, discussions with fencers and kick boxers about what it would be like to be a modern day knight and how much they’d have to train. I’ve read blogs and magazines in army barracks and the websites of private schools. I’ve badgered friends and strangers to tell me everything they know on a subject.
Yeah, it can make people think you’re weird, and yeah, your search engine history may get you arrested by the end of it (especially if you’re writing a crime or murder mystery novel), but research is important.
Next time you’re reading a blog that seems irrelevant, remember it might be useful as research in the future. When people have an interesting background or hobby, ask questions – even if you’re not writing about it at the moment! You never know. Either it’ll be stored in your mind palace (aaaand there goes another Sherlock reference. But it’s too awesome not to share) for later, or it’ll spark off an idea that’s so amazing you have to write it NOW.
When you’ve finished researching it, that is.
What’s the most difficult thing you’ve had to research, and how did you go about it? Do you like this stage of planning or does it hold you back? And can you please answer my Inspector/Detective Inspector question? It’s getting on my nerves.