The Devil is in the Detail

Francesca Burgess is happily distracted by research

I first discovered a love for research during my history degree, many moons ago, when given the opportunity to use primary sources as well as secondary. Trawling through the census, parish records and tithe maps almost tempted me to become an archivist. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I’d one day use such research to add authenticity and character to my stories.

Kyle to Portree signOther of my colleagues have extolled the virtues of the brilliant Google Street View. I can’t overstate the usefulness of this. I once took myself on a ‘drive’ around the Isle of Skye, which was exactly what my character was doing. She needed to stop in the middle of nowhere, park and walk up a hill. Although away from the road, a close aerial view showed me where the path went. There are also photos posted by viewers: very handy for seeing things not visible from the road.

Worthing info boardEven if you do visit a place, and I’ve visited Skye on a number of occasions, Street View is handy for reacquainting oneself with an area. My recently finished novel is set in a place based on Worthing, where I lived as a tot. I wanted to check whether I could see the sea standing in the middle of a certain road. You might think, what difference does it make if it’s only based on Worthing? Consistency. I don’t want a character to be able to see it in one scene, and then not in another. Using a real place (though changing it to suit me!) works for me in that way.

A few years back I became hooked on I can spend (waste!) hours on it, seeking out my ancestors, but it’s also wonderful for research. A short story I wrote, The Demon Drink is set in a Welsh mining village in 1908. I based it on the village my mother was born in. To get a flavour of it from the time, I explored the 1911 census, finding out something Abertysswgof the people who lived there (I even found my great grandparents!), the kind of trades apart from mining. It gave me a real insight into the community. There were even two Russians, who I included in the story, surely a bit of a curiosity in 1908 Wales.

Then there are the purely practical pieces of research, the ones to do with everyday occurrences. I’m talking about dates, sunrise and sunset, the moon, and, because I’ve set most of my novels by the sea, tides. It’s no good saying it’s Easter Day on the one hand, then declaring that the sun was still up at 20.30. I don’t want to inadvertently have a full moon one evening, then state it’s a crescent the next day. I always have to hand a printed calendar for the year/s. On it I mark public holidays, characters’ birthdays and other significant dates for my novel. Along with that, I have websites open to check the sun, moon and tides.

Be sure if you get it wrong, you’ll be caught out by somebody. They say the devil is in the detail, and it’s certainly true of fiction. Just don’t get too distracted by it!

Useful websites:




It’s a Risky Business

Having put her characters in dangerous situations, Viv Hampshire now has to find a way to save them!

They say we should write about what we know, but sometimes we just don’t know enough. When I started writing my novel, I already had the basic story outline in my mind, but I knew right from the start that there would be gaps in my knowledge, and that I would have to fill them – accurately. And that, of course, means… research!

In my story, a toddler is left to spend two days and nights alone at home. She is almost three, she still wears nappies at night, and she has a favourite toy for comfort. That part was easy. But, to portray her accurately, there would be so many other things I would have to get right – or risk the wrath of eagle-eyed readers who know a lot more about child development than I do. And, in this case, risk was what it was all about – the risks a child that age was going to encounter and how she would manage them.

Questions: Can a three year old turn taps on and off, choose and change her own clothes, reach and open the front door, know who or how to phone to summon help? Would she be afraid of the dark? Would she eat anything if she’s hungry enough, or do fussy eaters remain fussy eaters? Would she have any concept of time, put herself to bed when she got tired, turn the TV on and off and perhaps watch inappropriate programmes, use the toilet and wash her hands, try to climb up high to reach a cupboard, know how to open medicine bottles, and cope if she cut herself or wet the bed? Would she accept and adjust to her situation – or would she just cry? I had to ratchet up the tension by making the readers believe she was at real risk, so they would care about what happens to her and worry about her safety, but I also owed it to them to get it right.

I have had children of my own, but it’s been a long time since they were three, and I had to be sure that my character felt, thought and acted the way any typical child of her age would if thrown into that perilous situation. So, who better to ask than parents of three year old girls? A general call-out among friends, fellow writers and facebook acquaintances to find suitable volunteers, followed by a detailed questionnaire, and I had all I needed – although there were some notable differences in their responses, eg while one mum assured me that her daughter would be too scared and/or shy to go to a stranger, even if that person had come to rescue her, another said hers was very trusting and would happily rush towards anyone – and frequently did! I found it encouraging that no two children react in exactly the same way, because it meant that, so long as I didn’t step too far outside the norm for her age, I still had some leeway to make my little character an individual, ensure that what happens to her did not become too predictable, and write her story in my own way.

While the child in my novel muddles along alone, her poor mum is lying unconscious in hospital. Portrait of Medical PractitionersYet more research required! I did a lot of reading on the internet about head injuries, operations to relieve pressure or bleeding in the brain, medically induced comas and how long a patient might be kept ‘under’, as well as the possible longer term physical and psychological effects should she wake up. I wanted my hospital scenes to seem authentic too – what the A&E department, intensive care unit and ward look like, the language the staff use, the long hours and social life of the nurses, and I even included scenes in the chapel and the hospital shop. Having a paediatric nurse for a daughter was a great help, and I did completely rewrite one scene after I read it to her and she told me exactly what I had got wrong.

My second daughter, who is currently training to be a social worker, came in jolly useful too. A toddler left alone to fend for herself for two days was bound to lead to Social Services getting involved, and both my daughter and her boss were able to fill me in on child protection procedures and plans, police powers, parental responsibility, case conferences and time scales.

What I didn’t want to do was to bog down the story with too much boring detail or technical information, so much of what I learned does not actually directly appear in the novel. Readers will not be taken into the operating theatre for a blow-by-blow account of what the surgeons are doing, nor will they have to sit through the discussions at a child protection panel meeting. BUT it’s all there in the background, providing a solid foundation that supports the narrative, holding the story up, and giving me confidence in what I write, so I can be sure that every inference, every passing remark, every line of dialogue that refers to something medical or legal or hints at what might happen to the family in the future is based in fact.

It’s a risky business, writing about things you haven’t personally experienced but, on this project at least, my research methods turned out to be very much a case of ‘not what you know, but who you know.’ Having friends and family who could help fill in the gaps was worth its weight in gold and will definitely earn each of them a mention in the acknowledgements list if (or when) the novel is published!

The World is your Oyster

Natalie Kleinman talks about why research is a new and exciting adventure.

In the past few weeks two things have turned my mind to the consideration of research with respect to writing fiction. The second – yes, I know, back to front – was the subject of this month’s post and the realisation that I know very little about research. The first was the decision to send the heroine of my work in progress out of the UK, and therefore out of my comfort zone.

Because I write contemporary romance I have always been able to draw on my own experience, both the contemporary and yes, the romance too. The places in my books and short stories are places I have seen and loved. The impression they made lasting. So I was pretty much writing from a position if not of strength then at least of comfort. Even though a large chunk of my bo?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????ok Voyage of Desire takes place on a cruise ship I could write from a knowledge base because I’ve cruised enough – on a ship, not in my writing – to be true to the facts. A little bit of research was required for one of the ports of call but it was minimal and quite enjoyable. So much so it tried to take me away from my writing because I became so interested in the place I wanted to explore further.

This desire to explore further worries me because my heroine is going to the United States. Though she’s only visiting one large city, it’s one I haven’t been to, therefore research has become a necessity. How far does one go and how much time should I spend on it? I have, thus far, only had one dabble but Philadelphia is the fifth largest city in America – this the first piece of information that came out of my research – with a wealth of material to delve into. I know this because I Googled only to find there was so much I had no idea where to begin. The webpage is bookmarked waiting for me to return. Following the advice and experience of friend and co-writer, Elaine Roberts, who pointed me to Google Earth, I logged in and put my toe in the water. What an amazing experience. I didn’t spend long, though longer than I intended, and I’m really looking forward to going back and ‘seeing’ the places I’m hoping to write about.

Now for what might seem a change of tack – a nautical term, I believe. I grew up with a love of historical fiction but it’s only recently that I’ve come to realise how much probing and exploration were necessary for the authors to convince me, as they did, that I was there in that place in that time. As a reader I took it on face value because it had an authenticity about it that I didn’t need to question and was therefore not pulled abruptly out of the story I was reading at the time.

Putting all these things together has made me realise the importance of being as certain as one can of the facts. I’m sure we’ve all read things from time to time where the spelling or grammar or a misplaced piece of information has spoiled the whole experience. It may be that hours of research are needed to avoid making mistakes but these are hours well-spent. One glaring error can spoil the whole.

PhiladelphiaAnd so I look forward to researching Philadelphia with enthusiasm and trepidation, keen to explore what looks to be an amazing place, worried that I might slip up and get something wrong, and absolutely positive that this new and fascinating adventure will take up far more time than it ought but from which I’m sure I will gain huge pleasure. And after Philadelphia? With Google Earth the world is my oyster.





A Wedding in the Family

It’s not really in the family but one of the five WriteMindsWritePlace bloggers married recently so it feels like it. On 4th September Viv Hampshire married Paul Brown at a delightful wedding at a venue surrounded (almost) completely by water. A lake on one side and a river running alongside on the other. It was a beautiful setting.The garden was lovely, swans and ducks glided by on the water a few feet away. We don’t have a large selection of photos but there are lots more on Viv’s Facebook page. We will leave the pictures we do have to tell the story..

Mr and Mrs

Mr and Mrs

The old tradition of throwing the bouquet

The old tradition of throwing the bouquet

Viv and Paul with their mums

Viv and Paul with their mums

Cutting the Cake

Cutting the Cake

Beautiful Bridesmaids

Beautiful Bridesmaids

Off on their honeymoon. 'Jamaica Here we Come'

Off on their honeymoon. ‘Jamaica Here we Come’

Writing this today brings back memories of a Thursday afternoon when a lovely couple began a whole new phase of their lives together. We wish them every happiness.

Natalie, Elaine E, Elaine R and Francesca


The Wonder of Woolworths!

Elaine Everest continues this month’s theme by taking a look at research for her current novel set in World War Two.

Mention the word ‘research’ and for me two thoughts come to mind. The first is an excuse many of my students use for not having added to their novel since the previous class. ‘I can’t write as I need to do research.’ is heard often. My second thought is, great, I can find more information to make my work shine and if I’m lucky I may just fall upon a historical event I can use to make my work sparkle.

At the moment I’m halfway through a novel set in NW Kent during World War Two. I know the area well and have been brought up hearing family stories of times gone by. Anecdotes are fine as long as they aren’t historically incorrect. I love tales like what happened to Mrs X the day she was blown from the toilet in the local cinema. Change the name and as the lady was unhurt it becomes a funny scene for my main character’s nan. However, if I require something to happen during an air raid in a certain month I have to check details more carefully. I cannot rely on anecdotes. This is where the Internet is invaluable. Local council archives have been a godsend giving me details of what happened and when. Newspapers and records of the time back up the information. I do like to have two primary sources when researching.

What about my characters? How do I find information about the people who lived in Kent at that time? How do I dig deep into their lives, thoughts and feelings? The BBC came to my aid here. Between 2003 and 2006 the BBC asked the public to contribute their memories of World War Two to a project called WW2 Peoples War. Along with my husband, Michael I helped by attending events and interviewing the older generation about their lives during the war years. It was a privilege to speak to people who served at that time as well as those who were children. Each person had a unique story to tell and gradually a social and wartime history was formed for all to read online. Now, I can go to the public site and search for information about what happened to ‘the man and woman in the street’ at that time. Whilst writing my last novel, Gracie’s War I wanted to know what the weather was like in Gracie’s village on 3rd September 1939. Not only did I find a local man’s record of that very day but also his memory of the following year when the ‘little ships’ headed to Dunkirk. Reading someone’s personal account can bring the era to life much more than delving into a hundred reference books.397Erith-1930

Research for my current novel meant that I had to not only find out about Woolworths at the end of the 1930s but a particular store. Get this wrong and I’m sure a reader would soon let me know. A local nostalgia group on Facebook came to my aid. One member’s mother worked at the store during the war years and could confirm my research. However, my greatest joy was discovering there is a Woolworth museum curator. What a gentleman! I sent just a few simple questions as I don’t like to impose on people’s generosity too much. Within a day I received two emails that gave me information, not only about the store but also about some of the people who worked there and how they coped at the height of the war. My main character, along with her two friends, came to life as they relived the lives of those who lived and worked in Erith during the war years.

That’s the wonder of Woolworths, as the advert used to say – that’s also wonderful research!

How Hard Can It Be?

Elaine Roberts begins the month with her own experiences of research.

Research is different things to different people. I know people who love a bit
of research and will do masses of it, just to buy a television or a mobile phone.
Some actually do it for a living and I take my hat off to them, because it’s not
a job I could do.

Personally, I have nightmares about it. As soon as it’s mentioned, I’m immediately transported back to school, sitting at the dining table, surrounded by masses of
book pics encyclopaedias. My memories of starting with one book, which gives away my age, and looking in the index for the page number where the information can be found. Excitement sets in because you’ve found the page, only to find it contains one line of the research item and advises looking under another category, in another book, for more information. So half an hour, and six books later, I would have several small amounts of information, which I never had a clue how to make into an essay.

Hence the reason I was always surrounded by books.

Recently, during a one to one with a publisher, at the Romantic Novelists Association Conference, I was asked if I would mind changing the setting for my novel. “Of course not,” I said, “thinking yeah, I can do that, how hard can it be, that shouldn’t take long” and in all fairness it probably didn’t. I’m not altogether sure how long an author would normally take over major changes to their novel.

Thank goodness for technology, the Internet and a supportive husband who likes research. Google Earth, a marvellous invention, allowed me to walk along streets in Australia, so I had a good idea of areas and the types of houses. I could see what shops the main character would walk past when she left the house. I was able to find out all sorts of information, including college courses, the weather conditions, plants, spiders, even Australian Christmas cards. All done on a click of a mouse and in a fraction of the time it would have taken me at school, oh to be young again. Actually, for the record, I have no desire to go back to being school age.

Research can also come from talking to people, whether by e-mail or face to face. It’s surprising how many people are happy to impart their knowledge, when they know you are writing a novel. Although it’s always best to check any facts and sources, so the novel doesn’t get discounted on a technicality.

I take my hat off to past authors; research must have been slow for them. Although, I suspect I picked up associated skills along the way, which have helped me as a writer. Patience and perseverance are two that immediately spring to mind, along with being able to tackle things in a logical manner and problem solve. I approach my writing in the same way as I do any other problem, how to get from A to D without going via F.

I believe I am lucky to have the ability to use modern technology to embrace
the research side of my writing. However, there is a small part of me that thinks the younger generation have missed out on my school days experience and only time will tell whether they have also missed out on gaining the associated skills that go with it.