What do these topics have in common?
1. Premature babies
2. Exotic carpets
3. The lifecycle of wolves
4. Native American superstitions
5. Inner workings of fairground carousels
6. Anglo Saxon burial methods
The answer is nothing, but they’re all subjects I’ve had to research for my fiction. Not for the same book, I might add (hmm..maybe that’s where I’ve gone wrong) but they all had two things in common: they were vital to the story and I knew zilch about them. Researching your novel can be a daunting business for the unpublished. First of all, you have to work out how to introduce yourself. Do you start your query with: ‘I’m writing a novel about…’ and hope that’s enough? Or do you give them a full CV? Or, do you just blur the facts a bit, hinting they’ll be seeing you on next year’s Booker shortlist?
You may think this is easier for published writers (was that the sound of hollow laughter?) because you can include a sparkling Amazon link to your last book. But this might bring its own problems. What if they don’t like the cover? What if their sister did it for her book group and ‘didn’t much care for it’?
The good news is that the vast majority of the time, people are hugely flattered that you, someone brave enough to actually write a book, wants some of their specialist knowledge. If you mix in Strictly Writing type circles, you might start imagining everyone is at this novel business. The fact is that most people ‘out there’ are actually quite impressed and interested. I’ve never had anything but positive responses from individuals or organisations I’ve approached for help.
If you are nervous about research, here are some tips:
- Always be professional in your approach. Be clear about the information you’re seeking, so the person in question knows whether they can help or have to re-direct you elsewhere.
- Try a little gentle bribery. ‘Obviously I will give you a mention in the acknowledgements for your helpful input,’ goes down a treat.
- If someone does seem unhelpful, remain polite and gently prompt them to suggest another individual or organisation they think would be more suitable.
- The internet is a goldmine of information, but make sure you get your facts from decent sources. There are lots of dodgy sites masquerading as information portals, so always have a proper look around before you lift a fact, and better still: double check it. After all, you don’t want Mr Nitpicky Nerdypants of Norwich cluttering up your Amazon reviews with his insistence that fish fingers and Smiley Faces didn’t exist in The American Wild West.
If you can get beyond a certain feeling that you’re a fraud, research can be one of the most enjoyable bits of writing fiction. Anyway, I’m off to work on my new novel. It’s about a premature wolf cub in Anglo Saxon Britain, which gets reincarnated as a modern day carpet salesman with a thing for fairgrounds.
I think it has potential, don’t you?