The joys of research - Jo Carroll

I’m tiptoeing towards another novel. 

It takes month to evolve from initial idea to that challenge of the first sentence. I’ve learned to trust that process - ideas, like soup, need simmering time. But they also need occasional attention - in the form of research. Ideas need contexts.

I love research. I love the way it takes me down surprising avenues (or sometimes barely visible pathways) - it’s so easy to spend days learning about something that is nothing to do with the subject but is hugely interesting. No learning, I tell myself, is wasted. (Or it wouldn’t be if I could remember it two days later.)

Research takes many shapes. The most obvious is googling. Speaking personally, I find it the least inspiring. It’s so easy to click from page to page, and read regurgitated facts. If all I need is facts then it’s the obvious way to begin.

But I want more than facts. I need to understand place (not surprising, maybe, for a travel writer). And so, whenever possible, I visit the towns or villages where my novel is set. I walk the streets, wander down alleyways, sit on a quiet station and listen to the birds. I linger in cafes and watch the routes that people use across a square. If I can, I’ll visit in sunshine and in rain - where do I find shelter?

And I try to read original documents. This is where I am seriously distracted. 

I can spend hours in libraries. Town libraries, busy with local people researching family histories. University libraries, with students trying to concentrate and text at the same time. County history centres, where original copies of council meetings or parish records are kept - these are my favourite. They smell of dust and old paper. People whisper as if the records themselves might tell them to hush. I must take notes in pencil. I scribble pages of irrelevant information simply because it has intrigued me.

Simply a way to put off the moment of finally facing that blank page? Possibly. But that doesn’t stop me enjoying the process. Surely I’m not the only one?

If you want to read the result of my last foray into research, please read The Planter’s Daughter.


Bill Kirton said…
I'm a couple of chapters into my next one, Jo, but being held up (honestly, this isn't just an excuse) because I need to visit Fortrose and The Black Isle to get the feel of the setting. Up to now, that hasn't been a problem because my crime novels were set in a fictional town (but near enough to Aberdeen to use the countryside and lifestyles I know well), and the historical ones were set in an (1841) Aberdeen whose streets, architecture and character haven't changed significantly since then.
And I smiled quite ruefully at your point about research teaching you so many interesting (if unrelated to your book) WHICH YOU FORGET THE NEXT DAY.
Bill Kirton said…
insert 'things' after 'interesting' while I write yet another note to myself to proof read everything properly.
JO said…
😀 Bill!
Umberto Tosi said…
Fits and starts: that's what I call my process. Glad to hear I'm not the only one who struggles with openers. Very well said. Research is remedy. Carry on, Jo!
Yes - research is often the best part of writing I find, and the best part of it is going to actual places and seeing them for yourself. I am just considering whether to go to Waterloo for this very purpose. What I always find in particular is that even if you look at maps, it doesn't give you the sense of how much the ground goes up and down!

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