Category Archives: Research Secrets

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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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

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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.