Write What You Know

MacBook Pro near white open book
Image from Unsplash, taken by Nich Morrison

Someone asked me about research today, and it got me thinking. How much research do I do? And then I wondered – what is research?

The thing about being an author is that all sorts of stuff gets lumped in. For example, in my story It’s a Deal included in the Grumpy Old Trickster Gods anthology, part of the story is set at the seaside. I didn’t research it. I remembered. When I was a kid, living within a reasonable drive of the North Wales coast, we visited the seaside towns a lot. I remembered the rundown amusements lining the promenade and the greasy fish and chip vans that sold the most amazing food. I remembered the sand on the pavement and the seagulls calling over the rumble of the generators as the hot fat sizzled and spat.

Looking over my writing, mist keeps turning up. I’ll admit to checking the chemical composition of the London smog and the formation of fog in an urban setting as I wrote Out of the London Mist. I remembered the time we were driving over the Denbigh Moors. I must have been around four or five at the oldest. Father stopped the car, right in the middle of nowhere, and we got out. It was a single track strip of tarmac with moor and mist either side. There were no fences, and sheep loomed in the mist. Father explained to me that we were in the middle of a cloud – that the clouds were so low that they were hiding the hills and we were in them. When I write about mist, I remember the sense of wonder and mystery that went with it.

And speaking of Out of the London Mist, I was given a facsimile copy of Mrs Beeton’s Household Management, a Victorian book of housewifery and recipes, as a wedding present, over thirty years ago. I was fascinated by it. I think I read it through, and then I picked up other old housewifery and cookbooks. When I came to write about Lady Clara’s household crises, I knew which cookbooks to consult. I had seen adverts in the endpapers for the first types of baking powder and tinned meat. I double checked with all sorts of sites for the details. Anything I mentioned in Out of the London Mist and Under the Bright Saharan Sky is absolutely double and triple checked. All the food and drink was on sale and easily available in 1900. All the places, currencies, even Shepheards Hotel in Cairo, were checked and rechecked and absolutely there in our world. But it was the memory of the fun I had with the cookbooks that helped me to know where to look.

And it was the memory of a classroom project, over forty years ago, that made me double check the maps of the East End of London for 1900 rather than currenGoogle Maps. Between the London Blitz and the redevelopers of the 1960s, the streets of London’s East End of are now very different to the streets that the monster stalked. It was memories of news coverage when the Canary Wharf Tube Station, that opened in 1999 that made me check whether certain tube stations were open in 1900 and whether there was a direct line between points of interest.

I have the attention span of a concussed sparrow, so I can enjoy topics like Medieval law, neolithic copper mines and feathers on dinosaurs. I don’t pretend to know much about these subjects, but because of the interest I’ve taken, I know a little and that I need to look. I have an idea where to start. For me, research is Sporcle quizzes, YouTube videos, documentaries and non-fiction books in all sorts of subjects so that as I write I remember that I have to check, and double check and re-check.

When writers are told to write what they know, perhaps this is what they mean. That writers should dip into their memories and experience so that even though the story is peopled with vampires and werewolves, there is still that edge of reality about it. That the detail of lilac in May and honeysuckle in August make the far-fetched story a little believable. Besides, if you take a broad view, research is so much fun!

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