If you do keep an eye on my scribbling, you may remember that I had a big sulk at the start of the year about needing research for my book, ‘At night all cats are grey.’ This was mostly the product of soul shattering self-doubt that inflicts us all from time to time, and me once a week, but it’s never a bad thing.
So, I hit the internet and the library and netted a few books on a variety of subjects related to the environment in which my book is set – namely New York gang culture, the seventies art and ,music scene and the Russian Mafia. I have to confess my reading list from the libruary caused a few raised eyebrows – Alpha city tales from the heroine infested slums of New York, next to a book on chocolate wedding cakes (although the later is not for my novel as such.)
Having never really done research about anything, or rather, having never researched for a book before, I wasn’t sure how to start – but the process seemed to break down into a few remarkably easy to follow stages.
1) Read the first few pages of everything. Mood swings from pleasure at finding exactly what you feel you need, and desperation that there is no way you will ever be able to convince in this genre, what the hell were you ever thinking, you don’t know this world and you must look like a tight tit for even trying.
3) Refuse to give in to sulk, and read some more. Start under lining things in the books you actually own, stick paper tags into the library books. This at least feels like you are doing something, like when you did ‘A’ levels.
4) Find something, which really climes with your book, which you thought you’d made up, but is apparently exactly how it was – feel elated and a little spooked – because it’s so exactly like you’ve written it must be a sign from some collective unconsciousness your tapping into.
5) Write five chapters in a hurry retelling the events described in the research material as if you’d thought of them.
6) Feel smug: feel sure you’re talking like a native.
7) Read them back. Hate them, feel you sound like a tit.
8) Edit the five chapters ruthlessly until only one line remains.
9) Realize that line is crucial, that it gives that elusive hint of reality without over powering your narrative, and that you would never have written it without the five preceding chapters of stuff now languishing in the bin.
10) Return the books to the library, three of them un-read – and wait until the next cycle of self-doubt sends you back there to check them out again.
And I presume I should add ‘and repeat’ after that lot.
I can say that, after research, my book is shorter but better and I know what happened to all the characters and why, but the reader doesn’t need to. It is very tempting to write footnotes along side every subtle detail – (the reason why character a is wearing a Thai silk shirt is that the Crime boss smuggles conflict diamonds from Africa to Thailand where they are used to buy heroin, which is then brought to America inside consignments of TV’s) but in fact, this is not what the book is about, it’s the foundation the research has allowed me to build the novel on. As it’s not actually about heroin dealing at all, it’s only important to me that I’ve worked it out. Oh, and the character likes the feeling of silk on his skin, but to work that out took a whole lot of other research….