Saturday, 13 April 2013

Guest Post from Kate Long


Kate Long has been a guest on this blog before, and always has something to say which we can all learn from. Here, she talks about the joy of preparation and research, and how spending a few minutes Googling is well worthwhile. Read through to the end for a chance to win a copy of her latest book. 

The Joy of Spadework

All novels require preparation, even if it is just hours of thinking time, and there are probably as many ways of preparing your ground as there are novelists. I always kick off with a timeline on which I jot seven or eight sentences outlining the main events of the story; that way I can judge the pacing from the start. Next come the character studies, two or three pages of detailed notes per person describing life histories, flaws, preferences and aims. From this I create a more detailed timeline, this one showing what happened to my characters before the novel begins. It will include specific dates so that I can cross-reference the action – Greg started secondary school in 1976, which was the after year Angie got married and two years before Albert died. I might also at this stage sketch out a family tree or two.



When I came to write my latest book, Bad Mothers United, much of that background was already in place. 22 year-old single mum Charlotte and her boyfriend Daniel, and Charlotte’s mum Karen along with her ex husband Steve, had already established themselves in The Bad Mother’s Handbook. I know huge amounts about their backgrounds and motivations and formative experiences. The setting too was one with which I was very familiar. No need to rack my brains over what kind of home they lived in or what their accent might sound like. The Cooper family abode was an ex council house in a Lancashire village, half way between Bolton and Wigan. I knew where they shopped and where they went for a drink and who they were likely to bump into on any given excursion. I knew about the pets they’d owned, the kind of neighbours they had to put up, the layout of their garden front and back.

Therefore, you’d think, there’d be minimal preparation involved. Except that even if you’re describing folk you know from a place you yourself grew up in, it turns out there’s an astonishing amount of research to be done. In a cavalier moment at the end of book one I’d sent Charlotte off to do her degree in York. That necessitated my taking a weekend break there, plus continual emailing of a friend who’d once resided on the outskirts of the city. I had to Mapquest the route Charlotte would drive across to Yorkshire, and search for images of the motorway service station where she’d take a break (Hartshead Moor, since you ask). Her boyfriend Daniel Gale is a scientist, so I needed information on his research interests, especially in the area of genetics. How lucky, then, that one of my best friends happens to be a professor at Warwick University working in that very field. And Charlotte’s little son is coming up to three, so I had to check child development books for what he’d be able to do at this stage, and ask the lady next door if I could record her toddler’s speech whilst he played.

Then there was the matter of when the novel was set. The action of The Bad Mother’s Handbook took place in 1997, and I wanted the sequel to pick up three years later – in other words a Millennial novel. That suited the theme of the family trying to make a fresh start. But very recent history’s slippery to deal with because it’s all too easy to assume contemporary details. Were people using text messages then? Were CDs still the norm or was music mainly accessed via computer audio files? I had to ask the reference team manager at the British Library how someone in 2000 would access archived newspapers; a lady from the CAB sorted me out with what housing benefits were available then, and a Twitter friend found me some old copies of the Disability Living Allowance booklet. Without kind people like this I’d have been scuppered, and it’s with pleasure that I put them in my acknowledgements.



Not that I ever resent this kind of groundwork. As well as being interesting in its own right, a serious fact-finding mission helps build up your own confidence in the world you’re creating, confidence which should spill over into the reader’s experience. More than that, investigating a particular topic can throw up ideas for plot refinements and sub-plots, for character detail, for narrative resolutions. It’s an opportunity to approach your work from an oblique angle.

So I’d say to all writers, Google with abandon and follow your line of enquiry where it wants to lead. Pausing half way your daily word count to hit search doesn’t have to mean you’re procrastinating. It may be that the little nugget you’re about to unearth will be pivotal to your story.



Thanks Kate! A fascinating post. I love the photos of your research notes, and am pleased to see they're almost as unreadable as my own notes. Research certainly pays off. When I read Bad Mothers United I felt I was completely immersed in Charlotte and Karen's world.

For a chance to win a copy of Bad Mothers United, simply leave a comment after this post. All those who've commented by 6pm Friday 19th April will be entered into a draw, and the first to be picked will win a signed copy. 

For more words of wisdom from Kate, see her guest post on Sally Q's blog, here


24 comments:

barnsally said...

A really insightful blog about how to prepare for a novel. People never think it's going to take that much to write about people who are in your own head.

Vee said...

Thank you Kate. A great post. It really brings out the work behind the work of fiction writing in order to make a book full of believable characters and believable situations.

Beth Kemp said...

It's easy to forget that the recent past is different to now, I think. Very interesting post, thank you.

Carol Hedges said...

Post it notes. All over the place. Pictures cut from magazines.... books with the odd sentence or phrase that I like and may act as a stimulus, marked and in piles on the floor. For the Historical novel: pics of the places I visited. Loved seeing your research stuff... people who do not write think we just sit there and make it up...the amount of spade work it takes is phenominal. And half the time, you only end up using 1/3rd of it.

Dee said...

I am a non-fiction writer with a real desire to now move into the world of fiction. This information will prove invaluable.

Sue Barton said...

A fantastic piece which reminds us how essential research is and the work that goes into producing a novel, thankyou.

Geraldine Ryan said...

"half way between Bolton and Wigan."

Is that Leigh, I wonder? That's where I was brought up! Excellent post, Kate!

Deborah Carr said...

Thanks for this informative post. I love preparation and the research that goes into a novel.

sallyjenkins said...

I hate planning before I begin to write. I find that it's only by starting to write that I can get to know and shape a character. But planning is something I will have to work on - I have a tendency to run out of steam in longer works because I don't have a 'roadmap' planned out. So thanks for the tips, Kate!

Victoria McMillan said...

This is really helpful. I am in the middle of researching my novel which is based in the recent past too, and it's technology which really needs consideration as it's easy to forget how different life was before internet and mobile phones!

Mister D said...

Love the post, I enjoy the planning phases and making notes on research nearly as much as putting it all together in the crucible of the final piece.

Della Galton said...

Having spend the day teaching how to write a novel yesterday, I was really interested in how you work, Kate. Very helpful - I especially liked the following your nose on Google bit to see if it unearths a nugget of gold. I always feel guilty when I get sidetracked from writing. And now I won't. Thank you.

Kate said...

Thanks for the kind comments.

Carol, you're a woman after my own heart!

Geraldine, the village of Bank Top is basically Blackrod - if you drew a triangle linking Chorley, Wigan and Bolton, Bank Top would be in the middle of it.

Sally, planning like that doesn't work for everyone. I've heard writers say it takes the impetus away if they know too much about what's coming. So it's about finding the method that works for you. Essentially I am a very insecure writer and I think that's what drives my planning!

Della, I too love to hear how other writers work. Hope the course went well.

Karen said...

A really interesting post, thank you :o)

TracyFells said...

A really helpful and honest blog and great to see the actual notes behind the novel. Timelines are the hardest bit to get right in plotting so it's interesting to see how Kate works.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

I'm exhausted reading that, Kate! Seriously, it all sounds a great way to organise a novel but I just wish I could do a little more planning before I jump straight in. Think I prefer to research as and when I need it or I might never get strated. Love seeing other writers' methods.

Jocelyn Kaye said...

Very helpful, thanks Kate and womag. Loved Bad Mothers Handbook, looking forward to reading the sequel.

Kate said...

Thank you!

Interesting what suits different writers. And also the way individual authors adapt their techniques over time.

Lydia said...

Brilliant post on the value (and joy) of research!

antoniabloomwriting said...

It's great to see how other authors work and prepare for novel writing. Research can take you to places you didn't even imagine. I'm liking that side of it more and more.

I think you're right about individual authors adapting their techniques over time. It's exactly what's happened to me.

Kate said...

I recognise Sally Jenkins' dilemma - too much planning dulls my inspiration but without enough, I too run out of steam. Even in short stories, I sometimes find that I have created character and setting without enough plot to drive the story through and the magazines do not like what I call atmospheric or subtle and they call 'vague'!
Yet when I started work on a novel last year, one technique I found really helpful was to simply dip in and out of the plot and write the scattered scenes I already knew were there. As soon as my characters began to walk and talk, I found out all sorts of things about them that I didn't know. Planning was too external, too objective, whereas letting the characters loose allowed me to feel them around me. Then, of course, I had to step outside again to build my structure. I guess it's all part of that contradictory dance we have to do in uniting inspiration with craft.

womagwriter said...

Kate, that's a great way of getting into your novel. I've also heard it's a good idea to write monologues in each character's voice, to find out who they are.
I do plan - have tried not planning and all that happened was that I didn't finish the novel. But an outline plan of what should happen in each chapter, plus character sheets, works wonders for me.

Kate said...

It's really interesting to hear different people's techniques. A lot of becoming a writer is finding out what works for *you*.

Alva said...

This is cool!