How to research a novel

‘Write what you know’ is classic advice – for good reason. We all want our work to have a tang of authenticity, and staying within familiar territory can make things more truthful, and certainly a heck of a lot quicker. And as I wrote in my last blog, no matter how well-intentioned, endless research can easily become a procrastination tool.

However… beyond lightly-veiled memoir, there are few stories where you aren’t going to need to do any research. And certainly, not many authors can sustain a career of only writing what they know – nor would they want to. One of the pleasures of fiction is imagining yourself into the minds of others, into other times or other places. And to make that feel believable, you’re likely to need both general background research and specific details – both will help the ‘feel’ of the world, era or person you want to evoke. But both will also help you feel secure in your storytelling.

They just don’t necessarily need to be done at the same time.

Big picture vs fine grain

We all know about authors who painstakingly take years over research (take a bow, Hilary Mantel), while others prefer a more cavalier, just-enough attitude. Personally, my approach to research is to consider what will pave the way, and what will get in the way.

It helps if the big picture stuff is broadly in place before I start writing, but too much fine-grain detail can actually clutter the mind (as well as delaying the essential act of just-getting-on-with-it). Essentially, I want to protect the flow in the first draft: knowing just enough to be able to write without stopping all the time. Then I’ll do several further layers of research afterwards, for fact-checking (once I know what my gaps are) and for lots of extra detail-adding.

An example: in the third section of What Time is Love?, I knew I wanted a chapter at an acid house rave, and another at an early-Nineties road protest. To give me an overview of this period – and the way various counter-cultural movements intersected – I read Matthew Collin’s brilliant, sweeping account of the era, Altered State. I also watched specific documentaries, from Tales of Resistance: The Story of the Newbury Bypass to Jeremy Deller’s Everybody in the Place – and many more besides! – and read scores of articles and looked at loads of photos from the time, trying to soak up all I could about rave culture, free parties, Acid house, New Age Travellers, road protesters, and the political clampdown that followed.

This laid the groundwork within which to plant what plot I already had sketched out in my mind. But it also specifically shaped it: this broad research inspired me to include the 1992 Castlemorton rave – which kept coming up in many accounts – as a point of inter-generational conflict in my book and to set a full, key chapter during a protest against the 1994 Criminal Justice Act.

But I also kept notes or underlined specific, tiny details that I thought I might use – little flashes of authentic colour, like the specific type of blue polyprop rope road protesters used to tie themselves to trees, or ravers sniffing Vicks inhalers while high. Some of these seeped in naturally as I was writing the first draft, but I also went back over when re-drafting, deliberately looking for places to insert such nuggets.

How much research to include?

As mentioned, what research I do is often driven by the act of writing itself: as I wrote What Time is Love?, I often found gaps in my knowledge, and made a note that further investigation would need to expand into these during the re-drafting process. Sometimes these were quite large things – how were women treated within the Labour party in the 1940s? – that might result in a re-write of a scene. Sometimes it would be some small specific detail, and then it was a question of googling, or asking specific friends, family, or Twitter (thank you to everyone who replied when I asked what twenty-something media types drank in the mid-1990s – Budvar, Asahi, sea breezes, and tequila, apparently).

But including the fruits of research within fiction can be a fine balancing act: you need enough detail to feel convincing and so the reader trusts your storytelling, but not so much that the reader really notices it as research. You’re not writing a textbook. There were often things I put included in What Times is Love? that I later took out: they felt like they were there to prove I’d done my background reading, not because they were essential to the story.

One unexpected issue I encountered pitted authenticity against cliché: my parents’ response to the section in the 1960/70s was that I hadn’t captured how people talked – that I needed more ‘far out’s and ‘heavy’s and ‘right on’s. The problem is, what may have been accurate in 1967 can today actually sound cliched, for readers who’ve lived through an era of groovy-baby parodies. Some of this language got put in and taken out over and over again during successive edits, as I tried to find the balance!

Representation and first-hand experience

Nonetheless, I believe it’s important to do your due diligence when it comes to accurate fictional representation. There’s been a lot of light and heat recently over the subject of sensitivity readers – not something I explicitly needed for this book, but if you’re writing about a certain marginalised experience, why on earth wouldn’t you want to make sure you get it right? In fact – that goes for writing about any experience. I embraced any chance I could to get people to read my book and give feedback, and think it’s essential to be open to hearing what you’re getting wrong.

I was particularly conscious, writing the character of Violet, of the need to represent her experience as a working-class Welsh woman navigating periods of social upheaval as accurately as possible. I drew very directly on the experiences of my mum and her mother to aid this, and it also led a lot of my historical research, from reading essential overviews such as Selina Todd’s The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010 to more targeted works such as Dierdre Beddoe’s Out of the Shadows: A History of Women in Twentieth-century Wales to seeking out historical photographs of Abergavenny.

Given I also work as a journalist, it’s perhaps unsurprising that I wanted to include first-hand interviews in my research, allowing oral histories to anonymously feed into the book. These ranged from interviewing my own parents about their lives and their parents’ lives to conducting specific case studies about everything from working in London during the 1940s to what issues students protested in the 1960s, from living in feminist squats in the 1970s to how it felt to campaign for New Labour in the 1990s.

As well as being a pleasure to do, these interviews threw up lots of fantastic information – from open-ended discussions the gave me broad context (e.g. on the intersection between radical feminism and lesbianism) to highly specific details (the kind of machine used to print homemade political flyers). Few experiences were lifted and used wholesale, but these shared memories were like fertilizer, nourishing the soil of my story.

They also formed a handy, cliché-busting reminder that no-one is simply cipher for their era – and nor should your characters be. Interviews are a useful illustration of the many, often contradictory ways people response to place, time and circumstance – a helpfully messy counterpoint to the occasionally overly-neat accounts of a certain decade as ossified in history books or popular culture.

Where next?