Category Archives: Research

Research: Writing the Opposite Sex

I once read a piece by a woman about men in a gym: they were in the shower comparing the size of their penises.  Trouble is, this would never happen – the possibility of humiliation would be too great.  But men are often described as being obsessed with the size of their willies, and being competitive with one another, so doesn’t it seem logical that they would behave in that way?

By way of balance, I asked a female friend if there were any similar examples written by a man about women.  She mentioned Ian McEwan’s Atonement.  At one point the protagonist, who is not aware that he’s attracted to a woman called Olivia, throws her clip (or something) into a fountain.  She proceeds to take off her shirt (and possibly her skirt) to wade in and get it.  In my friend’s opinion no woman would do that unless she wants sexual attention from the man.  She’d step in fully clothed or tell him to get it.  She has since talked to many women who all say the same thing. 

I guess the point is about research.  When we write about a plumber or a spy or a magistrate, we’d go and ask what they do.  But with the opposite sex we often assume that we know.  Because we’ve met a few.

One of the most astute romantic comedies is When Harry Met Sally.  Perhaps because it is written by Nora Ephron with input from Rob Reiner.  In her next film, Sleepless in Seattle, the male character was a complete J-Cloth.  It is noticeable that Mad Men is often written with paired male and female writers, and is the better for it.

But novelists don’t have that luxury.  So perhaps all I’m talking about is seeking out and listening to feedback.  In my second novel, an elderly woman writes a few jokes at home in preparation for a comedy gig.  She stands in front of the mirror and reads them out.  When I showed it to a female colleague she told me that the woman would also be concerned about her appearance: what she would wear, how her hair would be.  The thought that an elderly woman would have those concerns had not even entered my head.  I took her advice and added a paragraph.

Research: Trainspotters

John le Carre at the Hay Festival 2013 on his first research in the Middle East: ‘I set off… first to Israel, where Shlomo Gazit, who was Head of Military Intelligence took me over, showed me that world.  And then I went, sometimes by way of Cyprus, sometimes directly over the Allenby Bridge up to Beirut, where the PLO were still hanging out and with some difficulty I got alongside Arafat.  And Arafat took me on for probably altogether ten days and sent me down to South Lebanon to Sidon where I stayed with Salah Tamari who was the chief of fighters down there.’ 

Interesting.  My first research interview was with a train spotter, and I was terrified.  I was writing a ‘western’ about trainspotting and thought that it would probably be best if I found out what they actually did.  Their local hangout is Platform Five at London Bridge.  Men with rucksacks and notepads, all facing in different directions.  I was certain they would tell me where to go, so I approached the nearest one cautiously and asked if he’d mind a few questions.  Twenty minutes later, after he had told me about carriage numbers, and the York Railway Hotel, and ‘Units’ and ‘Wagons’, and the websites and magazines, and being on sick pay, and the notepads he had that went back to 1965, I said my thank-yous and started to walk away.  ‘There’s also plane spotting!’ he shouted after me. 

What I learnt was that most people don’t mind being asked about what they do.  In fact, like most of us, they’re dying for someone to ask, and to listen.  Doesn’t matter if they’re in the Jordan Valley or the wilds of Platform Five.