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Sunday, 7 April 2013

Some tips on Researching Places for Setting your Book. Look, it's mostly 'drink tea and eat cake', all right? Oh, and smells.

Research.  It's not a dirty word.

Well, I suppose that all depends on context and volume, if I were to run up to you yelling "What the researching research have you done with my researching papers, you researching son of a researcher!" then, depending upon my tone, you may conclude that a) I am rather angry about something, or b) I have become 'stuck' on the word 'research' like a record with the needle jammed in the groove, and need a good shove to dislodge the word, and move on to something more appropriate, like '*&!!*'

In fact, neither of these are the case.  Is the case.  Whatever. In fact, I have been indulging in a little research.  Now, I know that I am usually a research denier, on account of the fact that I have such a short attention span that, during research, my brain wanders off and has been known to sign up for backgammon tournaments, file buttons according to size and recover a sofa in tofu during attempts to get it to look into the history of something.  So, here I am to give you some of my own personal tips on attempting research without driving your brain into reckless hobbies or making you go blind, or anything. 

(I should point out here, in the interests of full disclosure, that I am researching a town as a location for my forthcoming book, not knitting stitches or the history of armour or anything useful, so you may want to skip this post and go and drink some tea or something.  After all, any tips I can offer on anything are basically going to boil down to 'eat cake' and 'sit down a lot', so, you know, usefulness - not so much).

1. Walk around alone.  This is great if you are researching a location, not if you are researching ladies' clothing through the ages, when it will just get you arrested.  But, for investigating places, walking alone through streets and looking up are to be recommended - skylines can be very revealing places.  If you go with someone, you will be distracted by their chatter and desire to go into teashops.

2.  Take pictures.  Honestly, however much you think you will remember, you won't.  Also buy local tourist guides (I mean the booklet things, not the people, they won't even let you rent a tourist guide person to take home) and maps.  Remember to point the camera at specifics, the building where you think your characters may live, or the graveyard in which they meet.  It is always worth pointing this out, since I inevitably get home to sixty thousand long-shots of a town, and one, inexplicable, shot of a pigeon.

3.  Sit and listen to local dialogue and patterns of speech.  Harder in some places than others, but you will, if you listen hard enough, inevitably pick up some variants of local dialect and accent.  I recommend park benches for this, but, and I cannot stress this highly enough, do not attempt to take notes while people are talking.  They always think you are spying on them. Which you are, so, fair enough, and don't expect me to stump up your bail money.

4.  Make a note of smells.  This may sound a little strange, but smells are very important.  When books mention 'local colour' they don't mean actual colour like 'the trees were that particular shade of greenish brown that you get when you leave a coffee cup for six months with half an inch of coffee in the bottom', they mean all the things that make that place that place, and not somewhere else.  Rivers, for example.  In a town a river might smell of old weed that's been dredged out and left on the bank, or rusting shopping trolleys, or that kind of mud that children love to poke with sticks. In the countryside it mostly smells of ducks.  Smells are important.

5.  Absorb the atmosphere.  Yes, all right, this is basically sitting down a lot and eating cake, but you can absorb while you're doing it.  If you absorb sufficiently you can't get your coat on again afterwards.

I hope this helps.

My research location.  Smells like Teen Spirit, oddly enough.


Chris Stovell said...

Excellent advice, I am NO photographer, but I have become very research dependent on my little point and shoot camera... hence my distress when it got thrown off the end of Wales. Smells are what I notice least, unless they're especially, well, smelly, so a timely reminder there too.

Jane Lovering said...

I am glad the camera came back from its excursion off the end of Wales! I've never really done advice before, so I am glad you found some of it useful, anyone who has ever spent time in a small room with a large, well-fed, dog will know how important smells are...

Writer's Desk said...

Thanks Jane - Excellent advice! I shall remember to use your method of research, plus the visit to a teashop, have overheard many an interesting conversation, plus its a chance to ask a local questions about the area. Also love your picture at the top of old fashioned typewriter keys, takes me back to when I learnt how to touch type!

Stephanie_C said...

I love advice. And teashops. Advice containing teashops is even better!


Jane Lovering said...

The importance of teashops to research is very underestimated. Someone should do a survey...

Margaret James said...

Aah, the smell of a good teashop - lovely! Do so agree that the senses are important in writing, tend to drone on to my creative writing students about this. A great post, Jane.

Rose Anderson ~ Romance Novelist said...

Terrific post! Thanks for sharing.


Janice Horton said...

Sound and helpful advice on research, Jane. I love research. I love it too much. It's the best part of the writing process for me probably because it's not actually the writing part!

Janice xx

D.J. Kirkby said...

lovely photo, hilarious post and great tips. Smells ARE very important. As is cake. *wanders off in search of breakfast cake*

Jane Lovering said...

Thank you all. I am glad my advice was timely. And that the cake was useful...cake is always useful... *wanders off also in search of this rare item - breakfast cake*