Category Archives: Research Secrets

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

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #95 Sept 2009 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my latest 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… Laura Wilson

In Oct 2009, I interviewed historical and psychological crime writer, Laura Wilson, about her research tips and techniques for my Research Secrets column in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum #96.

Laura-Wilson-Freeway-300

Laura Wilson explained why for both historical and crime writers research is important. she said:

“There’s a standard piece of advice given to people who are starting to write fiction – write from your own experience. I would venture to suggest that if you are, like me, a writer of crime novels, it’s not very useful. What are you supposed to do? Go out and murder someone and then say, ‘Sorry, Officer, I was just doing it for research?’ It also rules out writing historical novels, science-fiction, fantasy, and quite a lot else besides.”

She explained that if you are not going to create a fictitious town or village, you can make your task easier by choosing to set your work in an area you know well. Laura often writes about the West End of London, as she lived and worked there for a number of years and is very familiar with it. However she did make it clear, a writer should always be allowed to take liberties. For example, she once moved a whole seaside town five miles down the Essex coast, although she pointed this out in the acknowledgements so the readers, if they choose to look at them, were forewarned and didn’t write her letters pointing out the ‘mistake’.

Another tip Laura gave in he feature to make life easier was give your protagonist a job you have done yourself. For example, Dick Francis, the ex-jockey, writes stories set in the world of horse-racing. Research for him must be comparatively simple, because he has both the knowledge and the contacts. Laura admitted sometimes too much knowledge can get in the way and hold up the action. The best piece of advice about writing she has ever come across is from Elmore Leonard, who says, ‘Leave out the boring bits’.

It’s always tempting to slip in factoids because you know them, forgetting that the reader wants a narrative, not a lot of information about coal-mining or dry-cleaning or how to put on a crinoline or whatever it happens to be.

She is adamant story-line must always be paramount, and don’t let anyone tell you different, as there’s a risk that research becomes a displacement activity that holds up the business of writing.  she explained there should be two main reasons for research: the first is to ensure that your story-line will stand up, and the second is to underpin your work with authenticity and truth.

she told me there are some practical steps one can take to find things out: the police and other experts are astonishingly helpful, provided that you are specific in your questions. Go to the library, do your homework, and work out exactly what it is you need to know first. Buying drinks or lunch usually pays dividends.

It’s important, too, to confirm things you think you already know – get it confirmed by another source. There’s a lot of debate about the efficacy of the internet as a research tool they need to be checked against something more reliable. People’s memories can be faulty, too. Nothing beats a spot of physical research – as Black Beauty said, ‘Feeling is believing’.

Research can bring your nearer to the characters. Laura said: 

“While writing my fifth novel, The Lover, I had great difficulty getting into the mind of the killer, Jim Rushton. The book is set during the Second World War and Rushton is a fighter pilot, so, after consulting the genuine articles, I booked myself a trip in the nearest machine I could get to a Spitfire, a Harvard Training plane which had been modified to seat two people.

I discovered for myself the amazing adrenaline rush other pilots had described to me.” (Laura Wilson)

T6harvard

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #96 Oct 2009 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

To read my latest Research Secrets interview you can invest in a postal subscription from the Writers’ Forum website or download Writers’ Forum to your iOS or Android device.

For more information about Laura Wilson and her novels take a look at her website: www.laura-wilson.co.uk

An interview with… Matt Gaw

In this month’s issue of Writers’ Forum I have interviewed Matt Gaw about his research for his second book, Under the Stars, which was published by Elliott & Thompson in February this year. It is about moonlight, starlight and how the subtle shades of darkness are under threat from an artificially lit world, exploring through a series of nocturnal walks, our relationship with natural night.

Matt Gaw 6

Matt’s inspiration to write Under the Stars came from something his son said when he was trying to get him to bed one night. He was 10 at the time and pushing to stay up. His son told him the average human spends around 26 years of their life asleep and felt like this was a waste of time. Matt realised that although he had been out at night – camping or toddling home from the pub – he had never gone out just to experience night.

Under the Stars jkt

So when day after a heavy snow fall, he decided to do some research and walk in King’s Forest near his home in Suffolk. Matt was amazed at the changes that happened as darkness slowly began to rise, changes that affected both the landscape and his own body.

“I think I realised then how much natural light there is at night; how night isn’t a black bookend today, but a place of subtlety and shades.” (Matt Gaw)

Matt explained walking the different routes to research the book was an organic process. He started off close to home and then started to go further afield when he wanted to explore both darker and brighter landscapes because he feels it is important for people to experience the nightscape close to home.

“It’s about being honest I guess, showing people that there are problems but there is action that can be taken and beauty to be found.” (Matt Gaw)

Matt told me he realised he felt safer the darker it was as once your senses have adapted to darkness, it is easy enough to navigate.

“It’s strange really, in some ways your world is made smaller – you operate in this reduced bubble of visibility – but in other ways it is infinitely bigger. At night you experience not only space, but time; the light from the stars has often been travelling for thousands of years before it reaches your retina.” (Matt Gaw)

Matt explained that wildlife is most active at dusk and dawn and I was lucky enough to see an otter hunting in Scotland and had some memorable encounters later with a huge, galloping herd of deer in King’s Forest and nightjar on Dartmoor. He has edited Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s magazine for a number of years so has an excellent foundation in natural history, but discovered he also needed to do quite a bit of additional research.

The main thing was looking at how artificial light impacts on different species, so he read quite a few scientific papers and also interviewed academics working in the field. For example, Travis Longcore, one of the first people to write extensively about artificial light and ecology was very generous with his time and illustrated to Matt how our perception of darkness is a world apart from that of nocturnal species. He recounts parts of this conversation in Chapter 5, while exploring the night close to his Suffolk home.

His research tip to other travel writers is to read everything on your topic or location – local guides, national stories, folk stories, blogs, scientific papers – then rip it all up and write your own. Matt tries not to over plan his trips, he has a rough idea of where he will start and where he wants to go, but he prefers to be adaptable to prevent being  closed off to the actual experience. If you’re just marching from A to B Matt believes you will lose something.

Matt’s has also written The Pull of the River where he explores Britain’s waterways with his friend James in a canoe, to give a new insight into nature, place and friendship.

Pull of the River

To find out more about Matt Gaw and his writing you can look at his website www.mattgaw.com, and follow him on Twitter @Mattgaw and Instagram @mattgaw

You can read the complete feature in #223 2020, which is available to buy from Writers’ Forum online at Select Magazines.

To read my latest 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… Jane Borodale

In Dec 2009, I interviewed historical novelist and short story writer Jane Borodale for my Research Secrets column in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum #98.

B Jane Borodale

She explained to me how she steeped herself in the period by reading widely, including contemporary commentary such as Thomas Turner’s diary of 1754-65 and the enclosure and rural social change, prostitution, illegitimacy, parish relief, the bills of mortality. She also listened to music; Handel, Rameau, Thomas Arne, secular street ballads and poured over maps of the period like John Rocque’s famous map of London, and images of daily life from Hogarth to Paul Sandby, to get a clear idea of clothes worn at the time.

A THE BOOK OF FIRES

Whilst researching the chalk downland area for her novel, The Book of Fires, published by Harper Collins, Jane Borodale realised what a rich resource the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum was. Historic buildings, rescued from destruction and rebuilt to their original form on the Museum’s site in Sussex, demonstrate examples of vernacular homes, farmsteads and rural industries from the 13th to the 19th centuries. They’re presented in a historically precise way which also strongly evokes their individual setting and period, and they seemed ripe for exploring with the fluidity of fiction.

C Poplar Cottage Washington

“Studying the buildings closely has made an enormous difference to the scale of the way I see history – its human intimacy – and I have learnt much about using texture and atmosphere. The library for researchers at the Museum is a small goldmine – with an authentic 14th-century draught blowing over the flagstones under the thick oak door – and filled to the brim with books about vernacular architecture, building techniques and social history that relates to the Weald and Downland collection.” (Jane Borodale)

Jane explained that it was important to her to involve all the senses so she went to a butchery day one cold November, to discover what the smell of fresh pig fat was like; cooked recipes from Hannah Glasse that always seem to start ‘take a little bit of butter rolled in flour’; sat on the north scarp of the chalky Downs and looked inland, imagining her character Agnes creaking on the carrier up to London before the turnpikes had reached Sussex and grazed endlessly on the internet.

D Interior detail Bayleaf

She told me:

“I love research; it’s a huge privilege to spend time finding a trail through the wilderness of something fascinating – and call it work! I always think that looking at history is like putting your hand into a huge barrel for little fistfuls of stories – whatever comes up.” (Jane Borodale)

Researching the fireworks history was more specific, and Jane had the delicious feeling of eavesdropping on a faintly illicit scene to which she wasn’t initiated. She looked at both contemporary and modern fireworks material – the latter partly to verify the former, as many of the grubby fireworks manuals of the early 19th century were full of inaccuracies. She explained it was very exciting to order up little pamphlets at the British Library that had clearly been used over the years, blackened with thumbprints, offering recipes for detonating balls, silver rain, honorary skyrockets, serpents.

Many original documents are now digitised and searchable for free if you access them from your local library or records office – www.ancestry.com offers all census returns for England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland from 1841 to 1901, among other things, or you can subscribe for access from home.

The language of the 18th-century chemistry was also rich and poetic, with its roots still firmly planted in the work of the alchemists. Jane even had fireworks propped up in her workroom, in her desk drawers, and went to displays, rubbed gunpowder between her thumb and forefinger, visited a fireworks expert to talk about his pyrotechnic work (who also demonstrated an explosion for her in his garden).

For Jane, each of her projects has a different organising solution, but she tends to sort notes, maps and copying into a stack of variously coloured Manila folders, usually according to subject, though sometimes to place or period of time. She finds the activity of regularly sifting through helps her to remember what she has, and keeps it all current in her head when she’s working on something. She explained she has separate notebooks for different aspects – one for topographical on-site notes; one for useful scraps, and a (usually) smaller one that she always carry in case of sudden unexpected bursts of inspiration on the bus.

When a notebook is full she transcribes the best bits onto the computer, striking lines through the pages as she goes, and these notes tend to be a kind of halfway house towards the writing itself. At a records office or library she writes out her notes on sheets of unlined A4 and includes the reference of what she’s looking at the top of every page, which she also numbers as it really helps when she gets home and tries to make sense of all the pencilled, frantic scribbling. She finds the use index cards quite constricting.

Her writing tip for other historical writers is to actually go to the places your are writing about. Seeing for yourself the particular scale of an environment, the prevailing wind, light quality, smell, the tilt of the land or the narrowness of a street, where the sun goes down – distinctive things that can’t be got easily on the internet. Even a few, isolated hours makes all the difference. Also (and this is quite boring) she always tries to note down the full reference details of every tiny fragment that might be useful – it is hugely frustrating to be unable to follow up something half-remembered at a later date.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #98 Dec 2009 Writers’ Forum online from Select Magazines.

To read the latest research secrets interview you can invest in a postal subscription.

To find out more about Jane Borodale check out her website: www.janeborodale.co.uk

Another interview with… Sue Wallman

This month for my Research Secrets column I have interviewed Sue Wallman about her research for her award-winning YA thrillers. I have previously interviewed and blogged about Sue Wallman before when I interviewed her for Papers Pens Poets. Take a look at: An interview with… Sue Wallman

20200309_131758

Her first book, Lying about Last Summer was selected for the WHSmith Zoella Book Club, and is about a girl who feels guilty about the death of her sister who drowned in a swimming pool the previous summer. While at a bereavement camp, she receives messages from someone claiming to be her dead sister. That book was followed by See How They Lie, set in a luxurious wellness retreat in the States. My third book, Your Turn to Die, is about three families who meet every year to stay in an old house, and my latest, Dead Popular, takes place in a boarding school by the sea. They are all published by Scholastic in the UK.

Sue told me that when she is researching:

“I prefer to write first and check later, unless it’s impossible to get the scene down without prior research. It feels more efficient because then I understand exactly what I need to know.” (Sue Wallman)

Her main research tools are the internet and talking to experts, or people who have experienced what she wants to write about. For example, Dead Popular is set in a boarding school. Sue didn’t go to boarding school, so she sought out people who had. Someone told her how she and her friends would use their phones to photograph staff inputting a PIN on a gate, then zoom in afterwards. She used this information when her characters to crept out of their boarding house. Such ‘real life’ accounts help Sue to develop her story.

“One of the reasons I write for teenagers is because I clearly remember how it felt to be one myself. I can tap into the emotions I felt in the 1980’s pretty easily and that’s very useful, but to write in a voice which feels authentic to today’s teenager requires me to do a lot of listening.” (Sue Wallman)

Sue listens to how her own children speak with their friends, and it’s often different to how they speak to adults. She loves teenage slang and find it fascinating but does not to use too much of it in her novels because it dates, and can be particular to a certain region.

As a school librarian Sue is well placed to listen to teenage speech patterns. She listens to the way the students start their sentences with “Wait,” or “Also” and end it with “right?” and writes down phrases which appeal. Recent ones include “Don’t kill my vibe” and “If you’re interested, hit me up.” If she is not sure how to phrase something, she simply asks but is aware the danger is when you don’t know what question to ask.

Sue told me that her characters really come alive for her when she is discussing them with others as if they’re real. She explained this is because the voice is not just about the words – it is young people’s sense of injustice about situations they have no control over, loyalty to friendship groups, anxieties about how they are perceived, and their opinions on a diverse range of topics.

In the interview, Sue explained how setting is especially important in thrillers because it builds suspense. She describes her thrillers as claustrophobic. She revealed that  bereavement camps like the one she wrote about in Lying About Last Summer don’t actually exist but regular activity ones do, and there are also various charities which run holidays for teenagers, so she meshed them together. She also makes use of experiences she has had in different areas of her life – for example, one of my daughters had a paint-balling party so I used paint-balling as an activity in the bereavement camp.

Her research tip to other thriller writers for children is to think about the sorts of phrases your own characters use. Type them into the search line of your search engine and a blog or article may come up, written by someone with those views and experiences that you can use as good background knowledge for your novel.

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #222 Apr Writers’ Forum from your nearest good newsagents or order online from Select Magazines.

Find out more about Sue and her books on her website: www.suewallman.co.uk, or follow her on Twitter or Instagram @suewallman.

An interview with… Julie Cohen

Julie Cohen writes romantic comedy for Headline’s Little Black Dress imprint and novels for the Mills & Boon’s Modern Heat imprint and is a Richard and Judy bestselling author. I interviewed her for my Research Secrets column in the #92 May 2009 issue Writers’ Forum.

She told me she loves research because it means she gets to do stuff she wouldn’t normally do. She has ridden roller coasters repetitively for a roller-coaster designer hero; gone to famous restaurants for a celebrity chef hero; rode on the back of a BMW motorcycle at 80 mph down the M4 for a motorcycling hero; ran from South Street Arts Centre in Reading to the station in high heels just to see how fast it could be done; visited art deco cinemas, retro diners, art galleries, cities and parks to research settings for her books. But, Julie believes the best resource is to get out there and talk to people.

Her original sources are all people. She explained talking to them is utterly inspirational and helps her get into the heads and lives of my characters. She has also met some really cool people who she has looked up online, in the phone book, or through research books.  Usually she emails or pick up the phone and rings. She has found that most people are happy to talk to you about what they know and told me their opinions are just as useful as the facts for developing characters.

She explained it is always important to acknowledge experts who have taken time to help or whose expertise you’ve used extensively. She like to send a thank-you email or note and often sends them a signed copy of the book when it comes out.

It is not until she is about half to two-thirds of the way through a book that she begins to see what information she actually needs.  That’s when she starts making lists of questions to ask, and that’s generally when she start calling experts and asking for interviews.  Because her books are more focused on the characters and the story than on research details, she does not see the point in getting huge amounts of information she probably won’t need.  Instead, she pinpoints what she has to know for the story and only uses (and often only find out in the first place) what’s vital to the story, or what seems to add vital flavour.

“I’m not a plotter when I write, and generally my first forays into research are pretty vague.  I use the internet first – and then the local library and bookshop. I’ll just dabble around in a subject finding out some stuff to see if any of it inspires me. My books centre round people and relationships rather than facts.” (Julie Cohen)

Julie told me that quite often, doing her research, she will find a central metaphor that she can use and examine through the whole book. For example when researching comics for Girl from Mars, she was intrigued by the concept of the gutter, which is the name for the blank spaces between panels.

girlfrommarslge

Because comics are static but portray action, the reader actually fills in the action between panels. The blank gutter is extremely important to make this happen. In her story, it became a metaphor for change happening when you’re not looking, for filling in the blanks, which are both key themes to the story.

You can find out more about Julie Cohen and her books on her website: www.julie-cohen.com

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #92 May 2009 Writers’ Forum online from Select Magazines.

An interview with … Anne Rooney

For the latest issue of my Research Secrets column in Writers Forum I have interviewed Anne Rooney about her research process for her non-fiction children’s books.

Anne Rooney3

Anne Rooney’s books range from lavish, large-format to smaller, cheaper books. Dinosaur Atlas (2017) and Animal Atlas (2019) for Lonely Planet are good examples of the first type, with fold-out maps, flaps, and fantastic illustrations. How to be an Eco-Hero (2020) is an example of the smaller format and has line drawings.

Anne loves doing research. She said:

“There’s a childish part of me which goes ‘Wow! look what I’ve found!’ — and that’s essentially what my books are. My older daughter says my job is basically being a perpetual student, and that’s pretty much true.” (Anne Rooney)

Anne explains that research can take you to all kinds of places: the distant past, deep below Earth’s surface, the furthest reaches of outer space or far inside your own (or something else’s) body. This is why she finds it more adventurous than writing fiction. Throughout the interview she used her book, Dinosaur Atlas (illustrated by James Gilleard), to demonstrate what she meant and discuss the research she covered.

“It covers the whole world and 160 million years, so it is quite ambitious. It sounds like it’s just ‘find out about dinosaurs’, but it’s far more than that.” (Anne Rooney)

Dinosaur Atlas

Anne explained how her research varies considerably from one book to another and how it differs slightly between fiction and non-fiction, but not necessarily more than between different types of non-fiction or different types of fiction. She told me the real difference is whether you are completely immersing yourself in an unfamiliar environment — 16th-century Italy, say — or checking details, such as which flavour crisps were available in 1980. The same applies in non-fiction. Some topics take tons of in-depth research and others take far less.

Anne said:

“Perhaps research for fiction can get you into more trouble more easily. In Off the rails (Evans, 2010; reissued, Readzone, 2014), a boy witnesses a crime from a moving train. I took the train journey, found the right spot, and tracked the other locations and journeys on Google maps. A few days later, my younger daughter challenged me: what had I done? Why did Google maps have an overlay marked ‘dump body here’? That doesn’t happen with non-fiction — though my lists of street prices of illegal drugs have raised eyebrows occasionally.” (Anne Rooney)

Anne also spelled out why there’s as much work to do understanding and sometimes explaining how we know something as what we know. Do we know what colours dinosaurs were? Why not/how? How do we know what they ate? In a world with a very cavalier attitude towards facts and truth, books for children need to set a good example by showing how truth is rooted in rigorous investigation that can be replicated and explained. Dinosaur Atlas features life size photos of bits of dinosaur. Anne suggests that museums are the best source for this: actually seeing a tooth the size of a banana makes it clear that absolutely has to go on the page.

dinosaurs

To research a book like Dinosaur Atlas, first Anne sets out what she needs to know. The parameters are set by the format of the book, including illustrations. An important part of research is providing an artwork brief and reference – that is, pictures the artist or picture researcher can use as a guide. The better and more detailed the ref is, the more likely they are to come up with a suitable picture the first time round.

My PhD supervisor told me years ago that you don’t need to know everything, you just need to know people who know everything you need to know. One of the best resources is people. I’m lucky to know lots of knowledgeable and helpful people! I had a consultant on this book, Dr David Button, who works at NHM in London and could answer any tricky questions I couldn’t resolve on my own.

Dr David Button, who works at NHM in London

Dr David Button

She explained that with a book like Dinosaur Atlas, the reference has to be accurate, and that means knowing which sources are reliable and which not.

“There’s a lot of dinosaur stuff out there and it’s important to know which sources are reliable and which not. You need to look for things that cite authoritative sources. It’s not all reading. I also watched YouTube videos produced by reputable channels such as PBS and the BBC to get some kind of idea of dinosaurs as living creatures.” (Anne Rooney)

She mentioned there are some brilliant professional paleolithic artists out there and Computer Generated Imagery  (CGI) created by experts where you can see the exact posture for theropods, because dinosaurs such as the T-rex didn’t stand upright as they are often shown, but had a more horizontal posture.

posture for theropods

Her starting point for choosing dinosaurs was to get a good geographic spread. She started with the Natural History Museum’s Dino Directory  as you can search about 300 dinosaurs by date, by type (eg theropod, sauropod, ankylosaur) and by continent, so it was a great way to get an initial list of possible candidates. Anne told me for details of specific dinosaurs, there are some great online databases, such as Prehistoric Wildlife  and blogs such as Everything Dinosaur.

Her research tip for other non-fiction book writers, it to integrate research into your life.

The world is buzzing with fascinating information. Keeping your research antennae alert all the time and note down everything that might be useful for any book you might ever want to write, anything that sparks your curiosity, even if you don’t have any immediate use for it.

She also explains you need to keep on top of your particular areas of expertise. Read the relevant magazines or journals, subscribe to email updates from all the relevant organisations and not everything potentially interesting and suggests that you keep track of your sources rigorously. Footnote everything. Keep the library call marks and the URLs of all your sources. You never know when you might need to go back to them.

Find out more about Anne Rooney, her research and her books on her website: http://www.annerooney.com, Twitter @annerooney and Instagram @stroppyauthor

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #221 Mar Writers’ Forum from your nearest good newsagents or order online from Select Magazines.

An interview with… Sarwat Chadda

Sarwat Chadda’s first novel, The Devil’s Kiss, was released by Puffin in May 2009 and was quickly followed by the sequel, The Dark Goddess. He has also written a breathtaking action adventure series for children aged 8-12 years, called Ash Ministry and writes under the pseudonym Joshua Kahn. He is currently working on a project with Rick Riordan. I interviewed Sarwat about his research in 2009 for my Research Secrets column.

He explained that for him the research comes before the writing because he loves reading about history, mythology and fairy tales way back when he was an engineer. He likes to start something on a whim and then explore the area, culture and background until he reaches a saturation point. This gives him enough information to sound convincing and have all the key characters and locations in place.

Ultimately, his books are about the character and feels everything else is scene setting. To help create his characters he looks into his life and projects how he was at the age of his protagonist. He said the core needs come from there.

Sarwat insists research shouldn’t be a chore it should be part of the fun.

“We’re not just putting words down on paper we’re offering readers our unique take on the world. If you’re finding it hard work constantly, question why you’re doing it. Writing is about passion, life’s too short to be wasted on something you don’t love.” (Sarwat Chadda)

Most of his research is done through books. In fact, he admits that his biggest cost is books, but he was buying them before he decided to become a full time writer. Sarwat believes that libraries are our greatest resource. I agree. Use them or lose them. He explained:

“The Internet has its place, but nothing beats getting really into a subject in a library and second hand book shops. They’re great since you’ll come across stuff that’s years old and since I’m writing about mythology, those sort of books just set the mood perfectly.” (Sarwat Chadda)

He said the danger is over-research and getting yourself trapped by it. But he does not have a system for the way he does his research. because he feels the best thing about writing is the license to mix it all up how you like. His tip to other writers is not to stack your books in a too organised manner. Mix them up and see what happens as you’ll come across connections otherwise impossible to see if it’s all logical.

Sarwat explained sometimes the ‘official’ version doesn’t work and you have to tweak it. This happens a lot in historical fiction, especially with combining characters and moving dates. But that’s why it’s called FICTION. In his adventures he admits he makes up all the difficult and dangerous stuff.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

For all that sort of practical detail on the ‘day in the life of a warrior’ he got in touch with various re-enactment societies and visited shows around England. Since his books are based on the Knights Templar, he found their working understanding of the practical nature of the arms and armour of a medieval knight, very useful.

“They explained the nitty-gritty of the sword hilt, the practicalities of the weight of armour, its properties and the weapons designed to overcome mail or plate. It’s all these details that make the story breathe with a sense of reality.” (Sarwat Chadda)

To find out more about Sarwat Chadda and his books take a look at his excellent website: http://www.ashmistry.com or follow him on Twitter: @sarwatchadda 

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #93 June 2009 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

An interview with… Helen Fry

In 2009, I interviewed British historian and historical non-fiction writer, Dr Helen Fry,  for my Research Secrets feature in the #94 July 2009, issue of Writers’ Forum.

Helen photo

Helen Fry specialises in history books, specifically refugees in the British forces in the Second World War; as well as English Jewish community history. But she co-wrote with James Hamilton under the pseudonym of  J. H. Schryer for her first novel, Goodnight Vienna. It is a love-triangle within MI6 British operatives, set against Hitler marching into Vienna in March 1938, based on authentic background research which she did for some of her history books.

For example: on 10 May 1933 Hitler ordered the burning of Jewish books in Berlin, including those of Sigmund Freud. As each book was hurled into the burning pile, a ritual chant was said by the SS, SA men and students. In our novel Goodnight Vienna, we have a scene of burning of books in Vienna in 1938, this time one of the central characters, a young headstrong anti-Nazi student hurls a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf into the fire. It never happened in reality, neither were books burned in Vienna, but one historical event in 1933 sparked the idea for a powerful fictionalising of it in a scene for the novel.

Goodnight Vienna came out in June 2009. The sequel, Those who Avenge, came out in March 2010.

Helen enjoys interviewing war veterans, many of whom have not told their stories before. The main focus of her writing and research was refugees from Nazism who fought for Britain in the Second World War. She feels there seems to be no other historian taking down their stories, which will very soon be lost and cannot be reconstructed from official government papers.

“It is important to me to capture the human dimension of what it was like in the war. I also enjoy searching through unpublished documents and material in national archives. Shaping a wealth of diverse material into a book is an art and skill.” (Helen Fry)

A number of her books are based on the oral testimony of war veterans. She rings them up after they have replied to a search notice in a paper or journal, and arranges to visit them. Helen explained it is important that they feel relaxed and are not pressurised to tell what they find too painful. You have to build up trust and their confidence. This often necessitates two or three visits. It is a lengthy process but makes it easier if you need to interview them for a sequel book because they then have your trust.

When researching, she often uses unpublished documents, papers, memoirs and the Sound Archive at The Imperial War Museum or the British Library. A prime example of this was for her book Music and Men: The Life and Loves of Harriet Cohen in which she used the archive of 3,000 letters which Harriet Cohen bequeathed to the British Library.

4817 Harriet FCP.indd

Sometimes Helen will visit the area she is writing about. For example, for Music and Men: The Life & Loves of Harriet Cohen after she discovered Harriet Cohen’s ashes were interred at Stoke Poges Memorial Park in Buckinghamshire she felt the need to go and see her final resting place, especially after having written what was an intensely emotional book, working through all her love letters. Helen discovered her final resting place was totally in character with her life. She is on her own tiny rockery island in the water garden, alongside her sister. Everything in her life was imbued with deep meaning and emotion, Helen felt this was no ordinary burial place, and so typical of her.

Many of her original sources are found in museum and government archives as well as specialist libraries, so for example when she was writing her book From Dachau to D-Day, it’s the story of a tank driver (originally a refugee from Nazi oppression), she used the official war diaries from D-Day to the end of the war at the Public Record Office, Kew. She also consulted the archivist at The National Tank Museum.

Dachau to D-Day

Helen revealed the Sound Archive at The Imperial War Museum was especially useful when she was adding research to my existing material from veteran interviews she had conducted. The Sound Archive contains masses of veteran interviews, some of which are specific to refugees who served in the British forces in WWII.

Helen told me she rarely, almost never, conducts research using the internet, as she believes this is how historical inaccuracies creep in.

“I believe that historians should use primary archives and sources and not rely on the internet, except to search for people who can help them with something specific. I am wary of online encyclopaedias.” (Helen Fry)

The key to her success as an author is being highly organised and methodical. Once she has carried out an interview with notes in her notebook, she types it up chronologically according to a veteran’s life story and asks the veteran to check it for errors. Then she files it in a single clear document wallet. Each veteran is given their own wallet which is then filed in a box file. Helen explains this makes it easy to retrieve when she comes to the writing-up process. She has gathered an archive of several box files of original interviews with war veterans, plus copies of photographs from their personal albums.

It is important to keep the reader’s attention throughout your book even if some of the material is heavy.

5112 Freud FCP.indd

For example, material for Freuds’ War could have been overwhelming, but she came across some wonderful quotes which just summed up the moment – so used them in the text. She explained:

“I wrote something about how Sigmund Freud was wrestling with the biblical character of Moses whilst he and his family were waiting for exit visas to leave Nazi-occupied Vienna in 1938. Freud was working on his final publication before his death called Moses and Monotheism. He wrote to one of his friends Ernest Jones: “Moses haunts me like a ghost not laid.” A brilliant quote which I incorporated into the relevant chapter because it captures the voice of the person you are writing about (in this case Sigmund Freud) and lifts the text. It gives one’s writing a lively flare.” (Helen Fry)

Helen told me one of the most unusual, or seemingly obscure, research she has done was about Jews in North Devon during the Second World War. She discovered that over 4,000 Jewish refugees were in North Devon during the war and they were all the intellectuals of German and Austrian society who had volunteered for the British army and were training there. This inspired her to produce a detailed book with over 250 black & white photos. It was awarded Devon Book of the Year, was made into a mini documentary for BBC South-West and has led to commissions for over six more books published since 2007.

most_loyal_jacket

“Books once they are published take on a life of their own. They can do extraordinary and unexpected things which are fun, like a mini documentary or radio programme. Few authors are lucky to have their books made into a blockbuster film, but there are other ways in which books can make their mark, sometimes beginning in small ways. The most important point is to get published. Then one can build on what is already in print to raise the profile.” (Helen Fry)

Her tip for other historical writers is to always have an acknowledgements page in your books, to firstly thank the people who have helped you, and also for the reader to see that the research behind the book is thorough and credible.

Find out more about Helen Fry on her website: www.helen-fry.com Or follow her on Twitter @DrHelenFry

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #94 July 2009 Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.

Interview with… Lucie Whitehouse

In my Research Secrets this month, I interview Lucie Whitehouse who revealed how she weaves fact and fiction into her psychological thrillers, so she doesn’t jolt the reader out of the story.

Lucie Whitehouse2

Lucie told me her latest novel, Critical Incidents, launched this month had an unusual beginning. She was working on her previous novel in Brooklyn Central Library one morning when a TV producer in the UK emailed to ask if she had an idea for a female lead investigative character. She replied straight away and said she was thinking about a woman in her thirties, a single mother of a teenage girl, who’s been booted out of her job as a senior homicide detective at the Met and returns in disgrace to her hometown, Birmingham. After she hit send she sat back in surprise. She’d never consciously had the idea. Evidently, though, her subconscious had been hard at work.

Critical Incidents

In Critical Incidents, Robin, the main protagonist, is technically off the job so for Lucie, it was a gentle introduction to writing procedurals. Her first four novels were psychological suspense and she felt had a lot to learn.

She explained she researched the structure of the Met’s Homicide Command online, reading up about Major Incident Teams, what rank of officer would lead one (a DCI) and how many officers each comprises.

“The police are quite transparent, and a lot of information can be found on a force’s website. For specific queries, you can contact them directly via their site. Forces’ Facebook and Twitter accounts are great resources.” (Lucie Whitehouse)

Lucie said the trick with research is to reassure the reader that you know your stuff without boring his or her pants off, and information dumps because great chunks of undigested information will pull a reader right out of the story.

To get her facts right she does a lot of on-the-ground research in concentrated bursts when she is in the UK. She spends days in Birmingham visiting or finding locations, taking photographs, collecting flyers, pamphlets, café menus, bus tickets and perusing the local history shelves of bookshops (Waterstones on the High Street has a great range). Lucie has found that buying local history books is better done on location than on Amazon, as shops often stock things from local presses.

“Birmingham’s rich history is one of the reasons I wanted to write about it and I read several books not only about the city itself but more broadly its role in the Industrial Revolution. My favourite was A History of Birmingham by Chris Upton.” (Lucie Whitehouse)

Lucie loves stitching in little bits of her own family history. A photo of the Whitehouse Flexible Tubing helped her with the visual details. This is the factory, where her father was Managing Director. It still operates out of this building.

Whitehouse Flexible Tubing

She also enjoys going to the places her characters would go, such as Moor Street Station, the Custard Factory, Stratford Road where Gamil’s bakery is located. She told me Dunnington Road, where Robin’s parents live, is fictional but based on a real street in Hall Green that she walked up and down repeatedly on a sweltering July day and one of her favourite is The Golden Boys statue, known locally as Boulton, Murdoch and Watt, three giants of Birmingham’s proud history as a hub of the Industrial Revolution.

The Golden Boys statue

Lucie explained:

“Ninety percent of my research never comes close to the page but doing it allows me to know the world of my book properly and write with confidence. It’s wool-gathering in both senses – by researching, I collect the raw materials but I’m also creating a mental space where I can spin them into something new.” (Lucie Whitehouse)

You can find out more about Lucie and her books at https://www.facebook.com/lucie.whitehouse.9 and on Twitter @LWhitehouse5 and Instagram @lwhitehouse5

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #220 Feb Writers’ Forum from your nearest good newsagents or order online from Select Magazines.