For the December issue 2020 of Writers’ Forum, I talk to Georgie Codd about her research for her creative non-fiction book, We Swim to the Shark, published by Little Brown.
Georgie’s adventure began when a friend invited her to join her for a road trip around New Zealand, she wanted to stop at Thailand on the way home so she could learn to scuba dive to explore her fears of the sea and potentially come face-to-face with the largest fish of them all: the whale shark. But events didn’t pan out as she planned. More than a year after she left for Thailand, she decided to write a short essay about her thwarted efforts. Her agent read it, and asked her to transform it into a non-fiction proposal. By the time the book was commissioned, she was still looking for whale sharks, and was three years into her quest.
Almost all her research for We Swim To The Shark began online with basic, initial searches about where to go, when to go, how much things cost, etc. For extra detail, she would comb through the travel section in her nearest library.
When she became a part of the scuba diving community, she started to receive heaps of recommendations from fellow divers, which she jotted these down, asking as many practical follow-up questions as she could – which dive schools were best, who to contact, things like that – and soon she had a web of suggestions to explore.
Georgie explained that once you enrol on an Open Water course with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), you’re given access to a manual that covers various scuba essentials, including the physics of pressure and buoyancy. It contains several sections about dive equipment. She scoured through these before she went under.
Her first port of call for UK-based research was a diving shop in south London, which many experienced divers tended to visit. Georgie told me that after emailing the owner, James, she received an invite to pop in. When she did, she was thrilled to hear James’s stories, and those of his expert customers. She asked if I could be his ‘writer in residence’ from time to time, sitting on a stool by the counter, seeing who came in. That put her in contact with all sorts of characters. Their stories added context and depth to the book.
This ‘residency’ also helped her discover, early on, that many of the experts had experienced moments of panic in the water. Hearing how they’d managed their fears gave me personal insights that she could put to the test, and eventually share with her readers.
When it came to face-to-face interviews, she mostly made quick notes in pencil, typing them up on her laptop straight after the chat while details like expressions and weather were still fresh in her mind. As time progressed, however, she discovered the slow speed of her note-taking held her back. So she bought an affordable dictaphone to record and transcribe conversations. (Only after asking her interviewees’ permission, of course.)
Her main preoccupation while researching marine life was the elusive, enormous whale shark. Much of her quest involved trying to learn more about these giants; separating the facts from the myths. To do this she contacted several experts, including Jason Holmberg, who created a pioneering programme called Wildbook, which uses NASA technology to map the sharks’ markings and identify them. Jason then told Georgie about the Marine Megafauna Foundation; a tip that unlocked a goldmine of knowledge, advice and humour from its co-founder, Dr Simon Pierce.
Georgie’s research tip for research relates to interviewing:
“Try, if your interviewee has time, to talk around your subject, as well as going all out on the topic you’re there for. More relaxed, open conversations often led me towards weird and unexpected connections. I found it extremely satisfying to explore those sudden tangents.”Georgie Codd