Writing a Book: Research

We’re up to the part five of the Writing a Book series. And this month’s post is on … research. 
I love doing research. It’s an excuse to buy multicoloured highlighters, nice Post-it notes, a sweet notebook and visit the library, or else grab a cup of tea and disappear down the rabbit warren of Google. The danger is that I will get lost in the research and never actually write the book. I realised halfway through writing my first novel that I was using “research” as an excuse to procrastinate.

Close that door!

Stephen King says in his book On Writing: ‘Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.’ This is how I now approach research in my novels. I write a complete first draft before going off to research anything in detail. My first drafts tend to be rough, full of notes and half-finished scenes (and sometimes sentences!). However, it’s only once I have this sprawling mess that I can begin to look for key themes and areas that I want to understand better and so learn more about the book I’m writing. I’m definitely someone who doesn’t know what I want to write until I’ve written it down. This can be time-consuming, but I’ve learned that it’s just the way I work and not to get (too!) frustrated by it.
I had to do a lot of research for both my novels. My first book, Captive, is a political thriller for teens about the kidnap of the prime minister’s daughter. That meant I had to get to grips with so much: what is day-to-day life like at Downing Street? What would the PM’s private apartment look like? What would it be like to live there? How much security would the PM’s family have? How much freedom would the PM’s daughter have? etc. etc. At the same time as this, I was also investigating kidnapping protocol. The aim was to make the setting and details of the book as authentic as possible. I did sometimes worry about my Google searches as I looked up ‘interior of Downing Street’ and ‘level of security around the PM’ at the same time!
I read a lot of articles and books, including parliamentary memoirs, to better understand this world. I also endlessly quizzed friends in the army and the police force.

Going with the flow

With my second book, In Your Light, I had a very different experience. This time the research ended up really directing the novel in a way I hadn’t expected. This book is dual narrative, one part follows the story of Seven and her life in a closed community, or cult. The second section is about Lil, a girl whose sister ran away from home eight months earlier.
However, when I started looking into the subject of missing teenagers, Lil’s story just took over in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I realised that I wanted to focus more on her desperate and painful search for her sister. As such, it felt important to better understand the complex issues surrounding teenage runaways.
The charity Missing People was kind enough to answer my questions. This amazing organisation specialises in reuniting missing children and adults with their families. It does this by working with the police to run publicity campaigns on social media, in the press, on digital boards and through its links with hostels and homeless shelters up and down the country. It also runs a free and confidential 24-hour helpline for families and missing people. The support the charity offers is unique and invaluable, and I was inspired by them. So much so that I ended up doing some volunteering for them.
Everyone’s experience of a loved one going missing is unique. However, I hope my book goes some small way to shining a spotlight on this important and incredibly emotive issue. If you want to read more this topic, or if you are thinking of running away, or know someone who has, you’ll find excellent help and support at www.missingpeople.org.uk.

Five tips for researching a book

  1. Write a complete draft first – This can be very rough, but it’s advisable to have the basics of the story and characters so that your research has some focus, even if, like me, you end up rewriting the whole thing because of what you learned
  2. Be organised – File, date, record everything properly, so you can find it again easily. I wish I had been better at doing this for Captive! Pulling everything together for the final draft was a bit of a nightmare. Having learned from that experience, I now keep much more organised records in Evernote.
  3. Find somebody who knows more than you and ask them loads of questions – I am naturally reserved and always worry about imposing myself on others, so this was initially quite hard for me. However, I’ve found that when I do pluck up the courage to ask, people are incredibly happy to answer my questions. On the whole, people love sharing their knowledge and interests with you.
  4. Don’t get too bogged down in research – You’re writing fiction not a history book. You don’t want your research to show. It should drape over the story, making the world and the characters feel more realistic.
  5. Be open to the research – You may find that your book takes a completely different direction.

(This piece originally appeared on the fab My Book Corner last October.)