Category Archives: Research

Research: Serendipity, Throwing Up and Learning the Truth

DICYik4nQSOM7ARS8PZRbASix months into writing a novel set in a Yorkshire fishing village – with a background of Brexit and immigration – I thought it might be a good idea to go up and find out what one actually looks like.  The story had come out of an exercise which involves writing as if no one will read it – which means it doesn’t much matter what you write.  But at some point, fantasy has to meet reality.

I was lucky enough to pick Staithes in Yorkshire, partly because it is quite idyllic and partly because there are all sorts of interesting things going on.  Trouble is, they’re not the interesting things I had imagined.  Which leaves me with the problem of marrying the two. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first evening was beautiful.  The tide had gone out and I spent ages wandering amongst the rocks and rock pools. I kept seeing surfers (surfers?!) in ones and twos.  As I made my way back, I decided to ask one of them where they were going.  I greeted the next one, and he said, ‘Hello, Mr Gapper!’ He turned out to be Adam, an associate trainer at the company I work for.  Once we’d got over the shock of the coincidence, I told him what I was doing there, and we agreed to meet up.

 

jNPZCqTcS0u4+kyVyJeZsAHe turned out to be incredibly helpful.  One of the things I’d got wrong was that the incoming tide goes right up to the cliff edge (I had written a character who slept on the beach each night).  He said, oh, you should go along to Port Mulgrave, there’s a little encampment by the sea.  And he was right.  The next day I followed his instruction to ignore the ‘Path Closed’ sign and made my way down the long descent, through the overgrown plants, down a makeshift stepladder and onto a flat lip of land where there are tin huts and wooden constructions.  There, I got talking to the only one of the residents present who told me the whole history.

 

 

The first two days had a slightly magical feel.  As if, I just had to remain open and things would turn up.  The next couple of days were harder.  I learned that this was not the thriving fishing village I had imagined. A local book describes only one full-time fisherman, Dave Anders, who has now retired and passed the business on to his son.  I spoke to him, and though it turns out there is actually quite an active, small fishing community, the real business of the village is tourism.  Me, for example.  So, what of my novel?

I booked myself onto a chartered fishing trip.  Now, the first thing to be said here is that I have never fished before in my life, and I found myself on a six-hour trip with seven experienced fishermen. Fortunately, the guy running the trip, Sean Baxter, was really helpful and took my ineptitude in his stride.  He very quickly taught me how to fish and, when he found out I was writing a story, kept making suggestions.  Even when, four hours in, I threw up twice due to motion sickness, he just told me to get everything out and then passed me a couple of tablets.Oghv3n22RZSybx%hN3Vfdg

By then, through the banter on the boat, I had already got a sense of the real tension in the village. A place where, in the 80s, locals were priced out of the housing, and, by the noughties, people with those houses – who now had second homes – were renting out their properties on Air BnB.  The thing you notice as you walk through the village are the number of key lockboxes on the outside of the homes. In the meantime, the original locals either hung on, got by, or moved out.  Adam introduced me to a younger local who confirmed that this is what is happening.  In other words, the same story that is being told up and down the country.

Interesting.  But how to adapt it into my story?  Well, that’s the next challenge.

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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.