I’m not a researcher. I’m not big on spending hours talking to people, interviewing them even, learning about them, their jobs, their private lives, the places they live and work. I do know authors who are researchers, and they love spending time learning stuff.
Nope. Not me.
But this week, I travelled about an hour away from home to look at a small village that I might use for a new series of cosy mysteries.
I’ve been there before (whilst cycling 100 miles on a training run for cycling London to Paris) and I wanted to see if my memories were correct. I picked up a 4-page newsletter for the village, and a 28-page newsletter booklet for the area. They’re not terribly interesting, but it adds to the background.
I’ve now returned home, enthused and excited. This has been very important for me. To see, hear and smell the village, hear the sounds of the sea-related business people on the shore, to smell the extractor exhaust from kitchens of pubs and restaurants. All great use of senses which I couldn’t do remotely.
But the main thing I’ve got is the ‘feel’ for the place. It’s non-sensory, but it’s a better understanding of what the place is, the sort of people who live there from the signs in their windows and the snatches of conversations. Interacting with people in cafés and pubs gives you insight into their concerns and interests. A simple question to a man waiting outside a small shop (bless you, Covid) elicited a fulsome reply, with extra information we didn’t ask for, but which was welcome anyway.
In short, there is no substitute for just being in a new location if you’re going to be basing your writing around it.
I try to write my novels efficiently. I’ve spent a long time learning about the genre (I read it anyway, of course), and I’ve spent a long, long time learning how to write creative fiction. Like, over a million words of long-form fiction writing before I even thought about writing a novel.
But when I’m writing my first draft, I try to write continuously, without stopping to answer questions that crop up. I have the overall story planned, as well as each scene within that story. I write my first draft, scene by scene. I mostly keep to the plan – although, as I’m writing, I sometimes realise the story works better with a small change – a bit more in a scene here, a scene cut there. I find writing a first draft in this way ensures continuity, both of the story and of the writing.
One thing I do when I’m drafting is that I leave notes for myself. << Where did the knife come from? >> or << Who told her this? >>, but I carry on drafting. It’s important to not stop the first draft and jump sideways into answering questions or fixing problems.
It’s the same with character attributes. It’s the same with location references. The first draft is ground out, having been fully planned, before the first edits where I am adding in the extra pieces of information and fixing those things that need fixing.
I call it the edit and add-it stage.
This is all part of my Efficient Novelist Programme, being developed now for release in the autumn.
The location research I did this week was different. I wasn’t there to find out what the bakery is called (named after the street where it’s located, by the way), or who lives next to the general store (I didn’t ask), or how high the castle tower is (90 feet, according to Wikipedia). I was there to get a feel for the place. Just to look around, see what sort of people were walking around, what sort of cars were parked in people’s driveways, what the visitors were doing. Just looking around, I got a great idea for one character, and wondered who lived in the tiny cottage with the Porsche parked outside. Some of this may make its way into the finished novels, but it’s all part of the colour of the location. When I’m going to write the books, I’m going to surround myself with photos I took, and be in the right place for my writing.
In this case, the location research was invaluable. I may well return there before I begin writing, to see the location in at a different time, away from tourist season, maybe in the evening.
But for now, all of this is put to one side whilst I finish off the production of the latest in the Jerry Sanders Investigations series:
Body Under The Pier.
If you’re interested in the Efficient Novelist program, there’s a Twitter account, but it’s fairly quiet at the moment. It might be worth a follow for future updates: @EfficientNovels
And the online course and associated book will be available this autumn.
And if you found this blog post interesting or useful or a brilliant way to procrastinate, please consider buying me a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/authorgeraldhornsby
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Featured image: Edi Libedinsky @ Unsplash https://unsplash.com/photos/1bhp9zBPHVE