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. Yet 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!