Category Archives: Research Secrets

An interview with… Christina Jones

I interviewed chick lit writer, Christina Jones about her ‘method writing’ approach to research in the #100 Feb 210 issue of Writers Forum.

Christina told me she always researches her character’s backgrounds to make sure they’re accurate. She revealed at first she used backgrounds that she knew well – horseracing (her granddad was a jockey), lorry driving (her husband was a trucker), fairgrounds (her dad was an ex-circus clown who then travelled with fairs).

However, once she’d run out of her own life experiences, she explained it was quite a challenge to start writing about things she didn’t know so well. To do this she turned to books for basic facts (the library was her second home), the internet for a quick-fix (God bless Google), but her favourite way of researching is to meet and talk to people who really know.

Christina explained experts are definitely the most helpful. She spent hours on the road with lots of lovely lorry drivers while writing Running The Risk learning all about transport law and how the haulage industry really works – and so that she’d know how Georgia, her lorry-driving heroine, carried out her job. Christina was even taught to drive a 42 ton lorry – but in the safety of a lorry park!

When researching Heaven Sent (about fireworks) Christina told me she had one of the best times of her life with the lovely pyrotechnicians from Fantastic Fireworks – they even taught her how to set-up and fire her own remote-controlled firework display.

With Moonshine Christina joined a local winemaking group to learn how to make homemade wine (such hardship!) and since adding a touch of practical magic to her novels, she had lots of help from various lovely white witches.

Before she meets her experts she puts herself into her heroine’s (or hero’s) shoes and make notes about everything they’re going to encounter or experience in the book and ask questions from their point of view. She write everything she think she’ll need to ask down.

During the interview she uses a dictaphone to make sure she gets all the facts correct, but she also take notes if something interesting crops up. When she gets home she transcribes both into a notebook like a long essay, then go through it and red-pen everything that isn’t needed and highlight everything that is. Christina told me:

“I think, without exception, I’ve become friends with everyone who has ever helped me with research, but I always write a thank you letter immediately afterwards, always acknowledge their help and expertise in the front of the books, and always send them a signed copy as soon as it’s published.”

Christina Jones

Christina’s explained it is vital to list your sources and acknowledge your experts. It’s only good manners if people have been kind enough to give up their time to help then this is the least you can do. And it’s good publicity for them, too – and they all love seeing their names in books.

When she was writing Walking On Air she spent weeks with the Utterly Butterly Barnstormers to learn all about wing-walking (and spent lots of time with the pilots of small planes and had several flying ‘experiences’. She even did a wing-walk so she knew exactly how Billie would feel in Walking On Air.

“…strapped to the wings of a tiny wood-and-fabric bi-plane, hundreds of feet up in the sky, travelling at a hundred miles an hour, feeling the almighty force of the wind, and the cold, and the insects that get EVERYWHERE and stay there, and how much your arms ache, oh, and your face flaps.”

Christina Jones

Christina revealed like Billie, her heroine, she wasn’t great with flying, and the thought of tiny planes with no escape routes terrified her. But once she’d met the pilots and wing-walking girls from the Utterly Butterlys and spent time with them both at their base and at air shows, and scrambled in and out of the Boeing Stearman bi-planes and teetered on the fabric wings ahw explained it was exciting, exhilarating and amazingly different. In fact, she LOVES flying now. She has even spent time watching them strip down a radial engine so she knew exactly how it worked and sounded.

Christina’s research tip for other writers is be prepared to listen to EVERYTHING you’re being told and then listen to a lot of other conversations going on around you as well. These little insider snippets – the things they don’t think are important – are sometimes the hidden gems that can spark off a whole new subplot.

“When I was researching Heaven Sent (fireworks) I had no idea until I listened to the pyrotechnicians chatting over a cuppa that no-one in the firework world has ever managed to create a dark green firework – and that this is the pyro world’s holy grail. This gave me a whole new area for Clemmie and Guy (my h&h) to explore and actually became one of the main plotlines in the book.”

Christina Jones

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #100 Feb 2010 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Nancy Campbell

In this months issue of Writers’ Forum I have interviewed Nancy Campbell about how her experiences as a writer in residence inspired three books.

Nancy wanted to write a universal compendium of snow: looking at words for snow in fifty very different world languages to show how different peoples around world celebrate, and use, snow. Fifty Words for Snow builds on that fascination, looking at cold climates around the world, through fifty different words. This book is the accumulation of a decade of research and travel in the polar regions, which began in 2010 with a winter residency at the most northern museum in the world, Upernavik Museum, Greenland.

Nancy has been appointed as Writer in Residence by many places: the English canal network (as Canal Laureate for the Canal and River Trust), a fishing museum in Iceland, an ecological research centre in Denmark, a state-of-the-art modern library in the Swiss Alps, and most recently, a year in an 18th-century water palace in Bavaria. These appointments, usually for a relatively short duration of time, are an intense and immersive way of growing to understand a community and culture, and producing new work.

The residency at Upernavik Museum was her first role of this kind, during the winter of 2010, and she said she learnt a lot from it. Her role there was to write about the museum collections and the wider life of this small arctic community.

“I got to know the hunters and fishermen on this tiny, rocky island, and began learning Greenlandic from them. Learning the language was an important step in understanding the culture (few of the islanders spoke English). I lived in a tiny wooden cabin down by the sea, which when I first arrived, was completely covered in snowdrifts, and my desk looked out over the icebergs of Baffin Bay.”

Nancy Campbell

Nancy drew largely on encounters and observations on the island. She found a few old books on archaeology in the museum and followed up with more reading at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge when she got home.

“It was a life-changing experience. I had expected to write just one book as a result of that winter, but in the end it started a fascination with the Arctic that took me through a decade, and several book projects, including The Library of Ice and How to Say I Love You in Greenlandic before culminating in Fifty Words for Snow.”

Nancy Campbell

Nancy told me that a sense of place drives her work, as well as her encounters with people in the landscape. It’s important for her, to gain a personal experience of place. She explained how early on in her writing career, when she was in a library in Switzerland, tweeting a dilemma: Should she go out for a walk in the mountains, or continue with her research? One writer responded: ‘But going for a walk is part of your research!’ Nancy proclaims she was absolutely right. Research is not only about reading. Being in a place allowed her to understand the atmosphere which she evokes so visually through her words.

Nancy revealed that as she travels she likes to take photographs and make sketches in her notebook. She prefers the speed and sensation of writing by hand and find it allows observations to transform more readily into thoughts than typing or using a dictaphone.

During the lockdowns, she has been using academic sites which offer online journal access such as JSTOR (https://www.jstor.org), especially for scientific research on climate change and glacial ice. But her writing is driven by her imagination, she these texts are used as a jumping-off point for her own ruminations, rather than quoting from them in her work. She also found https://publicdomainreview.org a great inspiration for researching images, as are libraries’ digital collections, such as the British Library https://www.bl.uk

“Even under lockdown in a pandemic, it was still possible to voyage around the world through books, and online. I read the environmental coverage in The Guardian and the New York Times. I am especially keen on amateur YouTube recordings as a substitute for my own direct experience.”

Nancy Campbell

As a writer who interweaves memoir and nature writing, Nancy said she relies on memory a lot, infusing her books with past experiences from her life. While the Arctic words for snow obviously relied on her travels in, and knowledge of, the region, she also returned to early childhood memories of the Netherlands. She believes personal experience to be the richest research of all.

“My father was an art historian who was researching 17thC Dutch painting in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and on visits to see him I grew fond of the chocolate hail which is commonly eaten by children at breakfast-time – Over 750,000 slices of bread topped with hagelslag are eaten every day in the Netherlands. Hagelslag became my Dutch entry for the book.”

Nancy Campbell

Nancy’s research tip is that it is valuable to share your research topics with your friends, always. They may come up with some surprising leads. Nancy hadn’t realised there was snow in Hawaii until a friend in Munich, who is originally from Hawaii, told her about Poli’ahu, the Hawaiian Goddess of Snow. This revelation inspired her story for the Hawaiian language.

To find out more information about Nancy Campbell and her writing see her website: www.nancycampbell.co.uk Twitter: @nancycampbelle and Instagram: @nancycampbelle

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #231 Apr 2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Cliff McNish

In April 2009 I interviewed children’s novelist, Cliff McNish, about his love of research and how he believes it is essential for writing fantasy novels.

Cliff told me he loves research because it can spin stories in utterly new directions. He believes research is truly the ultimate lateral-thinking tool. He explained as writers we mostly tend to find our thoughts tethered to more or less the same highly travelled and well-worn themes, plots and characters, but research can shatter that dismaying truth.

For example, in his ghost story, Breathe, he needed to know what the average early 19th century rural English family ate. Whilst searching online he found some information about rural poverty in the 1820’s and how families in that era routinely saved one fifth of their wages purely to pay for funerals. This fact influenced the direction of his ghost story.     

“The big problem for fantasy writers is that as soon as you depart from the real world readers forever teeter on the edge of disbelieving your creation. Fantasy writers have a whole host of techniques to make our made-up things feel authentic and believable, but good research is probably the main one.”

Cliff McNish

For example, in The Wizard’s Promise he sent gangs of children to modern Tokyo. The children can fly and create spells, and terrorize the magic-less adults but was grounded in the reality of the urban city. To ensure this Cliff checked the street layout, the tallest buildings, other landmarks and even the food.

He explained that fantasy authors and readers have an immense hunger for details that are or at least feel real.

“It’s part of the fantasy author’s contract with his/her audience, really – I’ll make things up, but dear reader you will understand the rules, and I’ll keep them consistent, and when I do refer to real world facts I’ll have done my research, the information will be reliable, depend on it.”

Cliff McNish

In his novel Silver World there is an alien attack starting in frozen Antarctic waters.  To make it feel authentic Cliff checked which islands/ice floes the attacking creature would reach first and what animals and species of birds lived on them. This research personalized the story and gave him focus.

He discovered albatrosses live in those seas and they fly faster than any other bird over great distances. He then put himself in the position of those albatross and imagined he knew what was coming: death, unless they could outfly it. Cliff revealed he ended up becoming very absorbed in the lives of these birds, but the spark for the scene was research.

“Facts become emotions in the end, if they’re dwelled on for long enough by an active imagination. And research + imagination = creativity.”

Cliff McNish

Cliff’s teenage moral drama Angel, has non-religious guardian angels beating their wings across the skies. Research into angel ‘sightings’ showed one of the most commonly held beliefs amongst Angelologists is that when they visit us our guardian angel leaves as a calling card one of its feathers. Cliff decided that for his novel even after an angel dies (in his novel they are mortal), the feathers outlast them a little, and can still provide comfort for a short time to someone who needs it. Without research, he would never have thought of that.     

For his novel, Savannah Grey, he created a creature that arrived on our world three billion years ago. It was a predator and was seeking to hit the apex of the food chain to become the dominant animal, the ne plus ultra. He decided nature should battle this creature throughout time, which has meant a lot of evolutionary research. Not only to discover what natural enemies this creature would come across (starting with single-celled organisms), but what order those species would arrive in, when the first plants come to light, the first backboned fish, the first telescopic eyes.

In contrast his heroine has to a throat weapon and extraordinary eye-sight. To find out how throat consultants and optical technicians would investigate such aspects he interviewed hospital specialists in those fields . The result was a dark fantasy novel, for which the bedrock of the research makes it feel real.

To find out more about Cliff McNish and his books look at his website: www.cliffmcnish.com

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #91 Apr 2009 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Nikki Marmery

Last year, in the #224 Sept 2020 issue of the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum, I interviewed Nikki Marmery about some of the primary sources she used during her research for her novel On Wilder Seas: The Woman on the Golden Hind.

Nikki revealed she was pregnant when she first read about her protagonist Maria, the only woman on board the Golden Hind during Francis Drake’s circumnavigation voyage. A throwaway line in a popular history book referenced the ‘Anonymous Narrative’, an eye-witness account of the voyage, which states:

“Drake tooke out of this ship a pilate to cary him into the harbor of Guatulco and also a proper negro wench called Maria which was afterward gotten with child between the captain and his men pirates and sett on a small iland to take her adventures.”

She explained that pregnancy focuses the mind on the unique vulnerability of pregnant women, so perhaps this is why she found myself haunted by Maria’s story: a woman alone among men in the extreme environment of a tiny Elizabethan exploration ship, who was ultimately abandoned, just before the ordeal of childbirth, on a waterless desert island in the East Indies.

“I wanted to know everything about her. Where had she come from? How did she end up in this situation? How did it feel to sail into the unknown; to cross the Pacific – heavily pregnant? What happened to her after she was abandoned?”

Nikki Marmery

But she discovered the facts of her life are really scarce. Maria is not mentioned at all in the earliest published accounts of the voyage. All we know for sure is that she joined the Golden Hind on April 4, 1579 from a Spanish merchant ship off the coast of El Salvador, and that she was abandoned nine months later near the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

With so little to go on, her investigation started more as a crusade of curiosity than a writing project. No historian had written in any detail about Maria. Miranda Kaufmann later published an excellent book, Black Tudors, which discusses her – but more often in histories of Drake, she was unnamed or erased altogether. Nikki realised if she wanted to know more about the possibilities of Maria’s life, she would have to research it herself.

From the secondary sources, she discovered the original manuscripts of Drake’s voyage are kept at the British Library. But it never occurred to her she could visit the library to read them – until friends took her on a tour of the library for her birthday. This was a turning point for Nikki.

“After having read about Maria for so long, to see the handwritten testament of someone who knew her was incredibly moving. The browned and barely legible manuscript has pinprick holes where sparks from a candle have burned the parchment. Marks are drawn in the margin to emphasise key passages. “

Nikki Marmery

Nikki explained that Maria is objectified and dehumanised by every man who has written about her: from the two surviving eye-witness accounts, to 17th century historians such as William Camden – via William Shakespeare, who may have been inspired by her story when he wrote of the witch Sycorax, an African woman who was abandoned pregnant on a desert island in The Tempest – all the way through to modern historians.

Nikki in contrast wanted to imagine what Maria would say about herself – but examples of women’s voices from the 16th century are vanishingly rare. She was delighted to discover the book Afro-Latino Voices: Narratives from the Early Modern Ibero-Atlantic World, 1550-1812, edited by Kathryn Joy McKnight & Leo J. Garofalo, which reproduces the archival records of African women in the New World – crucially, in their own words.

Another book that helped her was Dangerous Speech: A Social History of Blasphemy in Colonial Mexico, by Javier Villa-Flores where she learned how slaves used blasphemy as a strategy of resistance to fight their oppression. By renouncing God, and denouncing themselves, a slave might invoke intervention by the Holy Office, which had the authority to remove a slave from an excessively abusive slave-owner. By threatening to blaspheme before a master inflicted punishment, enslaved people practised a form of ‘moral bribery’, by holding the master accountable for the sin of blasphemy.

Nikki’s novel unfolds against the backdrop of an enduring mystery of Drake’s circumnavigation voyage: where was his colony, Nova Albion. Drake and his crew lived there for five weeks in the summer of 1579. But when Drake returned home in September 1580, details of his American exploration were suppressed. The Queen did not want the Spaniards to know how far north he had sailed – nor that he was seeking the Northwest Passage, which would give the English a shortcut to the vast riches of Spain’s Pacific-coast New World colonies.

When researching Drake’s voyages, Nikki discovered that secondary sources that discuss the globes are misleading: they claim there are few differences between the two models. But the 1592 globe shows Nova Albion at 46˚N, while the 1603 globe shows it further north at 48˚N, with a redrawn coastline. This is hugely significant. Molyneux had made changes to his globe to receive royal sanction for publication in 1592. But the 1603 globe was made in Amsterdam – not London – thus free from interference.

This discovery, in addition to other unpublished 16th century maps, all showing Nova Albion above the 40th parallel north, gave her the confidence to set Nova Albion in her novel on Vancouver Island, rather than California. It also offered her the freedom to fictionalise more fully what happened there, which led to my suggestion of a far more shocking end to the colony than the sources suggest.

On Wilder Seas by Nikki Marmery

Find out more about Nikki Marmery on her website www.nikkimarmery.com and follow her on Twitter: @nikkimarmery and Instagram: @marmerynikki

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #224 Sept 2020 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Caro Ramsay

In my Research Secrets column this month, I interview psychological thriller writer, Caro Ramsay, about some of the research techniques she has used for her crime novels.

Caro explained

“I always like to do something different with a book, which is not easy within the constraints of a long running series. So I wanted to try a story line that covered two novels while each novel in itself can be read as a standalone; The Suffering of Strangers and The Sideman.”

Caro Ramsay

The inspiration for her main storyline struck her when she was sitting on the side of a Scottish mountain, in torrential rain, gale force winds – it was the height of summer – watching a single walker on the other side of the hill tackling the West Highland Way. She had a feeling the walker was female. Caro was aware in that glen, you are a long way from a mobile phone signal.

For her research, she uses location visits, then the internet, then newspapers on the internet. With regard to research and police procedural her job as an osteopath means she treats lots of police and criminal lawyers. She often asks them for truthful answers about work conditions i.e. short staffed, too much paperwork, inter office politics. Caro said it’s these seemingly mundane minutiae which lends a sense of realism, not the procedures being correct (within reason).

Her advice would be to ask a lawyer about how the cops work and vice versa, then you will get the nitty gritty truth. She explained saying ‘I’m novelist and I’d like to know x, y and z,’ will get you the textbook version, not what happens in reality.

For Caro, the location fires the imagination for the story. She lives in the west coast of Scotland so the scenery is very dramatic. But Caro revealed that she steals setting ideas from elsewhere. For example, she was at Prince Edward, Lake Ontario, Canada looking at the water, slowly just walking along the scrub on the shore, through a hedge with long grass and wild flowers, when she realised my feet were hitting something hard. When she kicked back the soil it revealed a black and white tiled dance floor. A quick internet search and a few questions in a local café uncovered the sad story of the hotel that used to stand there. Caro used incorporated this into Durness on the North West tip of Scotland for The Sideman.

Caro told me sometimes it’s more prudent to write it and then find out what you need to know. Although she admitted to driving around in her small campervan looking for body deposition sites.

“There’s a famous road in Scotland called the Bealach na Ba, the pass of the cattle. It has hair pin bends at altitude, steep drops etc. The top is like a remote moon landscape. While having a coffee in a pub close by I saw the insignia of the SAS above the bar and a little research told me they did indeed train there, and that’s an important part of The Sideman story. So I got somebody to lie down at the top and pretend to be dead! I also ask friends to act dead then I move them around until they can’t be seen.”

Caro Ramsay

Sparks of stories also come to Caro through ‘incidental research’. The best thing is to ‘reverse research’. Find out what you need to know, use it, end of. Avoid information dumps. Keep away from the rabbit hole of the internet. Good research peppers the story with authenticity, it should never be obvious. Bad research bogs the story down. Caro said:

“A good tip is to not stop typing when you feel you need a particular word. I type in the word ‘wombat’ and get to the end of the draft. I believe Ian Rankin does the same but he uses capitals. Then when the draft is complete do a ‘find’ and fill in the detail.”

Caro Ramsay

Chatting to people, anybody, eavesdropping on conversations, people watching, are good ways to inform your characters. Caro’s tip to other writers is to keep your ears open. Everybody has a story. Never throw away anything, buy books of lovely post it notes, never be without your notebook. The most inconsequential fact or photo can percolate at the back of a writer’s mind and become the germ of a novel. Caro said:

Find out more about Caro on social media:

Facebook: Caro Ramsay

Twitter: @caroramsaybooks

Website: www.caroramsay.com

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #228 Jan 2021 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my future Research Secrets or Writing 4 Children interviews you can invest in a subscription from the Writers’ Forum website, or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

An interview with… Georgie Codd

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.

“I’ve never dived without a qualified instructor. They would provide – and help me set up – my kit, would brief me on what to expect, and would guide me through each site.”

Georgie Codd

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

You can find out more about Georgie and her adventures on her website: www.georgiecodd.co.uk and on Twitter: @georgiecodd and Instagram @coddities

An interview with… Simon Beckett

For my Research Secrets feature in the January 2010 issue of Writers’ Forum I interviewed crime writer, Simon Beckett, about how he was inspired to write fiction by a visit to the outdoor Anthropology Research Facility in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Simon Beckett
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Simon has written a series of novels about the fictitious forensic anthropologist, David Hunter. Before writing novels, he wrote for the Daily Telegraph Magazine. In 2002, he went to Knoxville, Tennessee to write an article on the outdoor Anthropology Research Facility, more commonly known as the Body Farm. They run a National Forensic Academy there, offering intensive – and exceptionally realistic – forensic training for US police officers and crime scene investigators.

In fact, there is no other research facility in the world where you can excavate human remains. They have training courses with staged crime scenes using real bodies. The bodies are donated, either by the individuals themselves or their families. The training and research undertaken has revealed a lot about body decomposition, the time it takes for hair to slough off a body, the role of insects on decomposition, even the differing effects that light and shade will have on the process of decay. This information is has proved invaluable for determining the time of death.

The academy goes to extreme lengths to ensure that their reconstructions are realistic. The theory is that the more life-like the recreations are, the better prepared the students will be when they encounter the genuine thing. It was a great privileged to be allowed in and I was hugely impressed.

During the five days Simon spent there, he watched the students put through their paces with a variety of simulated crime scenes, all recreated as closely as possible using actual human remains.

“One day I was cheerfully told to put down my notepad and tape recorder and help with recovering the two bodies that the students were carefully unearthing from a woodland grave. Sweating in the heat and dirt as the skeletal remains slowly emerged was a sobering, yet fascinating experience.”

Simon Beckett

Back in the UK, he was inspired by the idea of a novel based around what he’d seen and experienced in Tennessee. Gradually, the concept for Dr David Hunter took shape: a British forensic anthropologist schooled in the techniques and science being developed at the Body Farm.

“The research is everything in my books as there is loads of scientific background behind the plot. I like to find out the general principles of the crime so I do not come across any pitfalls where it would not be able to work out like that. Each book works out differently. I enjoy talking to people and this often leads to a re-jiggle in terms of plot.” (Simon Beckett)

Simon revealed he has a growing collection of forensic textbooks for anthropology and botany. He keeps a record of conversations and a lot are done by email so can look up who has helped. Sometimes it is friends and not necessarily a complete stranger. Most people are glad to help.

Simon explains it is possible to get too bogged down in the research. Don’t let the research dominate the stories and characters. It can be tricky what you use and what you cut out. The last thing you want is an info dump. When reading through the manuscript if you come across anything that is there for the sake of it get rid of it. It has to be there for the sake of the story.

You can find out more about Simon Beckett, his research and his novels from his website: www.simonbeckett.com

An interview with… Kit Berry

This month I have interviewed Kit Berry about the research she did into pagan beliefs for her YA series, Stonewylde.

Stonewylde is a five book series set in Dorset, in an imaginary setting, inspired by the beauty of the landscape and Kit’s interest in folklore and earth-based spirituality.  Stonewylde is a pagan community, with a beautiful stone circle where ceremonies are held at the eight festivals. 

“I wrote the series several years ago, starting the first book back in 2003. This was after a magical close up encounter with a hare one evening in local woods. My mother had recently died, and the hare stared deep into my eyes, sitting only a couple of metres from me, and stayed like that for a couple of minutes. I felt so honoured.  I went home and researched hares on my computer – and discovered their links to witchcraft and paganism.”

Kit Berry

Kit explained she was quite naïve about paganism and got involved with an online group, where a woman took her under her wing and told her how to cast a circle in my sitting room at the full moon. She was a single mum with three teenage boys, and also a school-teacher – so this wasn’t quite as simple as it seemed. The woman had told her she needed to be ‘sky-clad’, (naked) and was very prescriptive about how to set up the ritual space.  Kit has never been one for following rules, but decided to follow her instructions to the letter.  She banned her boys from entering the sitting room and cast her first circle.  When she’d finished, she went to turn the lights on again and fused the entire house.

Back in 2004, the YA market was just opening up, and although most of the editors enjoyed the story, they weren’t sure it was suitable for youngsters.  Kit’s agent advised her to self-publish. After selling over 20,000 copies of each of the first three books she acquired a new agent who got her a six figure deal with Orion Books under the Gollancz imprint– for the first three Stonewylde novels and two more, which she was planning to write.

Kit told me that for her research she picked anyone’s brains that she felt knew about ancient pagean sites. However she discovered quite early on that a lot of so-called knowledge is in fact pure supposition.

“Pagan people seem particularly prone to this – presenting an idea as fact, when we have no way of truly knowing how and what ancient people worshipped, nor how they conducted their rituals. So I had to use my imagination, but used facts wherever possible. For example, we know Stonehenge and other ancient circles have stones that align with the summer solstice sunrise, so I used this fact to add authenticity. The first rays of light at dawn on the summer solstice shining on one of the stones is a significant moment in the Stonewylde series.”

Kit Berry

The estate of Stonewylde is based on the Charborough Estate, which Kit used to drive past regularly in the 1990s.  This was at a time when there was a lot in the news about secret cults, and places cut off from the world with powerful leaders.  She told me how she would look at the long stone walls and the magnificent gates to this estate and let her imagination roam freely. Unfortunately, the estate isn’t open to the public so she couldn’t visit, although since the books were published she has done a charity event there, giving a talk and signing books.

Kit Berry at a book signing

Kit told me her most unusual research had to be the Villagers’ toilets. She did a lot of research into long drop/pit latrine toilets, because there’s no running water in the Village so obviously they wouldn’t have flushing toilets. 

Her research tip is not to take everything at face value. She suggests writers should look for several sources to check the authenticity of what you’ve discovered and especially be wary of people telling you information – much of it may be brilliant, but a lot of people do make things up, or base facts on very flimsy evidence and hearsay, or what they’d like to believe. So always use more than one source of information if it’s important; nowadays with so many search engines online, this is comparatively easy to do.

Kit explained that doing the research for Stonewylde was fascinating, and shelearned a lot but it’s so easy to get bogged down with research and feel you don’t yet know enough to start writing the story. It’s also a procrastination technique of course. Remember you can find out a lot about a subject, but you don’t want to overload the reader with too much of it. So stick to a few salient and relevant facts, and leave it at that.

You can find out more about Kit Berry and her books on her websites: www.kitberry.com and www.stonewylde.com

An interview with… Sahar Mustafah

For the October 2020 edition of the national writing magazine, Writers’ Forum, I interview Palestinian-American author, Sahar Mustafah about the research she did to build her characters in her novel The Beauty of Your Face.

Sahar told me she was interested in addressing the immediate threat toward the Muslim American community, as well as tell an authentic story about where we come from and the forces that bring us to the present moment. For her, story always comes first. She typically begins writing the narrative before supplementing necessary research and she is particularly interested in the humanistic details of her characters.

Sahar explained research aids description and builds setting. She wanted to first have a sense of her characters’ inner lives then flesh out any pertinent factual elements. She did not want to depict flat, contrived characters so she limited her research so as not to be trapped by a profile.

“In my preliminary research, I was very moved by Åsne Seierstad’s One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway. Though it’s a nonfiction, journalistic account, Seierstad offers a compelling narrative of the life of the murderer which doesn’t offer redemption or any sort of justification, as much as an understanding of how he had come to kill 69 young people and eight adults at a camp. It’s quite well-written though indelibly disturbing.”

Sahar Mustafah

Her protagonist, Afaf’s, storyline came, in part, from her personal background and the stories others have shared with her from her community. Her experience in Palestine allowed her to build that world when referenced in the novel in realistic ways, as well as having mostly lived and been raised in Illinois.

“After 9/11, my family and friends were experiencing near-daily incidents of harassment and discrimination at their local schools or on a trip to the grocery store.”

Sahar Mustafah

With every project, she begins a new journal or notebook in which I separate narrative notes from research questions/components. This allows Sahar to see her story arc clearly and flesh out characterization and outline plot without the distraction of technical, informational components. Sahar Mustafah’s tips to other writers when they are researching is to be wary of the rabbit-hole of research, i.e. clickbait and consumption of peripheral and supplementary information, which is presently so much more accessible via the internet.

“It’s easy to get caught up in informational or factual reading rather than the writing of story. I continue to find balance in my own writing practices. Research can be a quick and easy distraction for me so I limit its time. I tend to write in the morning so research in the latter part of the day is more productive for me.”

Sahar Mustafah
The beauty of your Face by Sahar Mustafah

As a lover of stories, Sahar explained she seeks out informal interviews with individuals relating to aspects of her research. She believes these help to preserve the humanity of the experience, in addition to providing technical facts and information. Her family members and friends who have provided time and interesting first hand accounts have been the seed of new stories.

You can find out more about Sahar Mustafah on her website www.saharmustafah.com or follow her on Twitter: @saharmustafah

An interview with… Peter James

In September 2009, I interviewed crime writer, Peter James, author of the international bestselling Detective Superintendent Roy Grace series, published in over 30 languages, spends a day a week out with the Police and has recently been made Patron of Sussex Crimestoppers.  He told me all about his research for, Dead Tomorrow, published by Macmillan, June 5th 2009. This was one of the most shocking and fascinating interviews I have ever undertaken.

Peter James 1 - Low Res

Peter told me that for him, research is as important an element in writing his novels as character and plot. He views each of these elements as an inseparable trinity.

“Each of my Roy Grace novels has its genesis in a true story or in research facts – as indeed do all of my previous novels.” (Peter James)

The central story of Dead Tomorrow is a single mother, Lynn Beckett, whose 15 year old daughter, Caitlin, is suffering liver failure.  Unless she gets a transplant within weeks she will not survive. Knowing the true fact that 3 people die every day in the UK waiting for a transplant, Lynn panics that the system will let her daughter down and goes on the internet. She discovers a German organ broker who can obtain a liver for her but at a terrible financial and human price.

He explained the spark for Dead Tomorrow came from a chance conversation at a dinner party, back in 1998. He was seated next to multi-award winning documentary film maker Kate Blewett – best known for the harrowing The Dying Rooms. She asked Peter how much he thought his body was worth as a soup of chemicals. Peter had no idea and Kate informed him it was worth about 50p. She then asked how much he thought he was worth in body parts as a reasonably healthy human being and stunned Peter by telling him the black market price for a healthy teenage or adult human is around $1m.

You can get up to $400k for your liver, the same again for your heart-lungs, $60k for each kidney, then your skin, eyes, bones, and a few other bits and pieces…. The reason being there is a world shortage of human organs, caused by improvements in transplant techniques, a reluctance for people to donate, and most ironic off all, by more people wearing car seat belts – which means they don’t die of head injuries so much any more, leaving their bodies – and internal organs – intact. As a result, three people die every day in the UK, waiting for a transplant. Around 20% of people on the liver transplant waiting lists will die before they get one – in the USA the figure is as high as 90%.

Dead Tomorrow

In the past decade a huge international market for human organs has evolved.  In some countries it is illegal in others, it openly goes on. China has been steadily lowering the threshold of the death penalty for several years running, executing prisoners with a single head-shot and selling their bodies to Taiwan. Manilla in the Philippines is now known as One Kidney Island. You can go there for an all-inclusive price of about £50k, and get a kidney transplant. In India, in some castes, women routinely sell one kidney before they get married, for their dowry, and are joyfully happy with the $250 they receive.  In Columbia, the mafia are making more money out of human organ trafficking in some parts of the country, than from drugs.

As a true example of the illicit trade, in 1990, eminent British kidney transplant surgeon, Dr Raymond Crockett, who Peter has interviewed, was struck off the medical register for nine years for illegally buying kidneys, for UK patients, from four students in Turkey.

James told me he wrote a story for HBO Television in the USA several years ago.  It was about an eight-year-old street kid called Juanita who was begging outside El Dorado Airport in Bogota, Columbia.  She was arrested by the police and handed to a care agency.  From there she was put in an orphanage, a beautiful home in the country, with other kids her age.  When she was fourteen, the parents of a teenage girl in the USA, desperate for a liver, paid the Columbian mafia $450,000.  Juanita, who was a match, was killed and all her organs were harvested. Peter said:

“I am sure you are think that as I write fiction, that story was fiction.  But sadly it wasn’t, it was true…” (Peter James)

For each novel, it is not just the lives of his villains and victims that he researches. Peter explained keeping current with the police and getting the correct police procedures right is absolutely crucial. Early in Dead Tomorrow, a dredger hauls up the body of a recently dead teenager from the seabed, just off the coast of Brighton. Peter needed to understand how a dredger works, and what it does, so he spent a day at sea on a working one, off Shoreham.  Then he needed to understand what the police would do in this instance, and was told a Police dive team – the Specialist Search Unit – would go out and search the seabed for clues. 

“The SSU kindly took me out to sea on a training exercise – and there I learned too much information…!!!  I always had a romantic notion that being a police diver must be a great gig – you get to swan around in scuba gear, getting paid to do what you love. Wrong! It was explained to me that the police almost always dive in zero visibility – in muddy canals full of barbed wire and rusting supermarket trolleys and jagged metal, or in sewers, or in weed-strewn lakes, or the bottom of the English Channel which is always churned up.” (Peter James)

In the interview Peter explained the procedure is to drop a weighted line down to the sea bed, then connected to the surface by a voice line and air line, they sink down, carrying a 200 metre cable over their shoulders, with a weight on each end of it – this is called a “jackstay”.  They then lay it out in a straight line on the sea or river bed, and swim back, holding the line in one hand and sweeping in the pitch darkness with the other.  If they find nothing, they move the weights a foot to the right or left, gridding out the bed.  When they find a body, under their strict procedures, they have to hug it, in case a current carries it away, and radio to the surface for a colleague to descend with an airbag to raise it to the surface.  They will have no way of knowing whether this body has been there for days, or weeks or months, and it is likely to be crawling with crabs.

Peter James next Roy Grace novel, Find Them Dead is due to be released July 2020.

Find out more about Peter James and his books on his website: www.peterjames.com

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