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.

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Writing a novel

Some exciting news: I have signed to RCW literary agency for a currently work-in-progress novel. My agent is Tristan Kendrick, who I am thrilled to be working with as the book progresses.

The story imagines one couple meeting at three different points during the 20th century, looking at how changes in class, gender and social mobility impact on a relationship.

Alongside the actual writing, I’m conducting oral histories with people who lived through the late 1940s/early 1950s, the late 60/early 70s, and the late 80s/90s as research. I’ll be putting up some posts about that process as I go along, as well as more general reflections on the writing process.

Siri Hustvedt: ‘There is a morbid belief that women lack imagination’

Published in the i March 22, 2019

Siri Hustvedt’s new novel, Memories of the Future, has a narrator named SH. At the age of 61, she rediscovers a diary she wrote when she was 23, as well as her first attempt at a novel. The older narrator looks back on her first year living in New York with an eye that is both wry and beady, peering into the gaps between her records and her memories.

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Review: Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

Published in The Independent on March 1, 2019

Marlon James won the Booker for A Brief History of Seven Killings, his bestselling novel about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley. Who knows what the judges will make of this gleeful and wholehearted leap into genre fiction: Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a vivid, bloody fantasy epic, playing out over more than 600 pages, complete with the sort of maps Tolkien would be proud of.

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Review: The Lost Child, Caryl Phillips

Published in The Independent on Sunday on May 3, 2015

The Bronte sisters wrote fiction with an exceptionally vibrant afterlife: Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and their characters still loom large, thanks to endless adaptations from prestige films to pop songs, and umpteen fictional re-writes, updatings, prequels and sequels. Continue reading “Review: The Lost Child, Caryl Phillips”

Review: At Hawthorn Time, Melissa Harrison

Published in Independent on Sunday on April 19, 2015

Beginning at the end is Melissa Harrison’s tactic: the reader is witness to an accident, two cars “spent and ravished”, three bodies. This casts some suspense over the story that follows, but the novel is as much a hymn to the ancient life-force of nature as it is a reminder of the underlying fragility of our busy modern world.

At Hawthorn Time is rooted in the English countryside, cataloguing it as April turns to May, and Harrison writes with impressive detail about our hedgerows, fields, and woodlands. Meanwhile, the human perspective on the changing seasons is three-fold. There’s Jack, a wandering visionary, often locked up for vagrancy, but who has a deep connection with the land. Continue reading “Review: At Hawthorn Time, Melissa Harrison”

Review: Adeline – a Novel of Virginia Woolf, Norah Vincent

Published in The Independent on Sunday on April 5, 2015

In the life of Virginia Woolf – and her friends, lovers and rivals – Norah Vincent has rich, if frequently plundered, source material. Bloomsbury’s tangled, talented lives provoke as much interest as their art, and this is at least the third novel about Woolf in the past year.

Written elegantly in rather Woolfian free indirect style, and with spiky, erudite dialogue, Vincent’s portraits are grounded in thick historical research. In truth, Adeline groans with it – would these people really spell out the importance of friends’ (now-famous) books or enumerate their (now-infamous) sexual histories in conversation? Vincent is, however, assured enough to do a rare thing: to really ventriloquise Woolf on the topic of her work and creative imagination. Continue reading “Review: Adeline – a Novel of Virginia Woolf, Norah Vincent”

Graeme Simsion on writing the sequel to The Rosie Project

Published in The Independent on Sunday on September 21, 2014

“When I sign books for men, I often put ‘there’s a little bit of Don Tillman in all of us’,” says Graeme Simsion.

We’ve met to talk about Don – his hugely successful comic character, an on-the-spectrum Australian genetics professor. Don burst on to the fiction charts in The Rosie Project last year, wielding questionnaires and schedules in his quest to find love. Inevitably, meeting a spirited young woman named Rosie soon derailed his methodical plans. Continue reading “Graeme Simsion on writing the sequel to The Rosie Project”