Researching for Fiction is Different. Isn’t it?Durham Town Hall

In earlier years I learned useful lessons in research method in the arcane world of academic research in history, sociology and culture. Interestingly it’s proved to be a smooth transfer to the more esoteric field of fiction. The desire for truth and rigour continues. Digging out the best sources is still a necessity.

Using the best sources to reveal the deep context for your fiction is essential. You can find the contextual history of a time or a place in the most recent academic studies. It’s not purely about old times. Novels set in the Sixties count as history now. Even if you or your mother can remember them you still need historical commentaries to inform, inspire and enlighten you and show you what you didn’t know.

And drilling down to original articles and commentaries, images, tapes, letters, bills, records and first person accounts, is not too difficult if you know your way around libraries – large and small, national and local. These days, such information and insights are not only there in bricks and stone, they are there in that great library in the sky, the internet. It was a delight to discover  that Universities and Museums across the world have online sites where you can uncover  information which might have taken weeks to discover a generation ago.

But your aim is different. Your aim is not to arrive at a new truth or an authoritative conclusion to share with your academic peers. In fiction, your aim has to be to absorb the best, wide-ranging, up-to-date sources until they become part of every breath you take, every move you make.

Then, when you come to write your story freely, you need to push the facts to the very bottom of your mind, to ‘forget’ that tranche of information, and to liberate yourself to create, to write the fiction. Your research will allow you to recount the inner lives and write the dialogue of your characters because you see them walk through their lives, you can hear them speaking in their own voices.

As I work on a novel myself, in the end my characters seem to stand at my shoulder chattering away. This certainly happened with Francine in Writing at the Maison Bleue, with the alleged serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton in  A Woman Scorned, with Elen, the Celtic/Roman princess in The Pathfinder and now in my new book with Dee (‘My name is Demelza but you can call  me Dee…’ ) in The Bad Child.

More than one friend said to me this was a kind of ‘channelling’ of historical or alternative  cultural experience into your present day mind. It’s an engaging, sometimes an enchanting, process.

The point of fiction is not to replicate history, but to infiltrate the true context so you can tell your story so your reader believes in that time, that place. This is a subtle process.

The challenge  – which some reputable novelists, for example, in my opinion Henry James, don’t meet – is to avoid ‘telling’ the reader facts, ‘describing’ the context because you assume your reader knows nothing. If your research has worked that will be evident in the lives of your characters – how they move, how they eat, how they speak.

If your research is sound then what you imagine – the allusions you make, the syntax and tone of your characters – join with the vast inner mind of your readers who in their lives will have experienced their own love, loss, joy, despair and will call on those experiences as they read your prose and it will deepen the pleasure of reading.

One of the fundamental gifts all writers possess is a kind of glorious empathy. Some people are born with it. I was lying of the sofa one day, feeling sorry for myself. I well remember my daughter –then aged two – patting me on the cheek and saying mournfully. ‘Mammy sad?’

Of course she’s a writer now.