5 Tips for researching your novel
I’ve spent a good part of today editing a textbook on South African politics and government. While I am not a particularly political person, I am fascinated by new facts, which is why I also trained as a journalist. Rooting through the first five chapters of this tome has been both dreary and incredibly enlightening. Sure, I knew there were two houses – the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces (NCOP). Yes, I knew the Constitutional Court has gained increasing importance in law making rather than just the application of law. Yet, there is so much beyond that: those details that have made me appreciate a little more how a parliament of a country with a democracy as new as South Africa’s cannot simply flip off the apartheid/Roman-Dutch/English switch and become an integrated, transformed institution where everybody works hard, knows what to do, and doesn’t pelt the opposition with plastic water bottles and expect to get away with it.
What this means for me in terms of my writing is the importance of research. South Africa’s current story, like any story, has layers. And as a writer, one must know enough of the background to be able to
fill these layers in. Finely. Cleverly. So that readers are not even necessarily aware of how much work has been done to make a scene real. With my first novel, The Punishment, I was lucky enough to travel to the town of St Girons where the story is set. I spent a great deal of time there chatting to people who had been in France during the Second World War, many who were then in their seventies and late eighties and were delighted to have someone hanging onto their every word.
The experience was perhaps one of the most uplifting of my writing career. Because a story that was still forming in my head was actively being shaped by these real experiences and real lives. Many of the scenes in my novel came from adjusted memories of the people I spoke to. For example, the swimming scene with Cédonie, Francine and Luc in the Lez River echoes something told to me by one of my interviewees who was a little boy when the Germans came. And the archway from where Thibault shoots does actually exist. I believe details like these gives the story more weight, and the characters greater form.
Of course there are lots of ways to begin research. And one doesn’t always have the capacity or the finances to visit the scene of the story. Here are a few things I absolutely believe in:
- Keep a timeline – especially if the novel is historical or occurs over several years, or even decades. Veracity comes with knowing what was happening in that town, country or environment at the same time as the character’s action.
- Use a physical map or something like Google maps – check distances, and make sure you’re accurate. Readers don’t generally like it when you make mistakes that could easily have been noticed if you’d just checked. Know the road names, the directions, the landmarks.
- If you visit the place where a scene is set, take careful notes. What can you smell? Taste? Hear? Train yourself not to focus only on what you can see. Descriptions without the other senses are bland.
- Take photos. Nowadays most of us have cameras on our phones. Use them. Even if the photos are not going to win you awards, they will remind you of the setting. And setting is an important aspect of a novel that you need to get right.
- Read – read books set in the same time. Read the genre in which you are writing. Read background research. Read pamphlets. Magazines. Newspapers. Articles on the Internet. And sometimes even read textbooks that seem a little dull until the magic jumps out at you.
What tips do you have for others about research for writing?