Noam Chomsky said that the internet was an invaluable research tool – which is a bit like saying Ronald McDonald owes a debt of gratitude to cows. For many writers, however, the internet is often both the start and end of the research process – a quick Google search, a scan of Wikipedia and you’re ready to roll on that 300 page novel.
But is that sufficient for a children’s book when your audience has a natural tendency to approach a new subject with the focus of a customs officer snapping on a pair of rubber gloves? Quite apart from the danger of encountering hoax Wikipedia articles (such as the delightful piece about Hemingway having written the Spot the Dog series) this type of research can end up delivering little more than a list of dry facts that are difficult to integrate. The net result can be a story containing enough data to pinpoint its exact location but containing nothing to make a demanding young audience really believe that they are there.
In this article I want to discuss the value of using other creative forms to bring colour and vibrancy to your writing; something I refer to as ‘the magic of make and do’.
For anyone who fears this might be a class in literary basket weaving, let me say that most writers already do this without thinking. How often have you relied on your camera or iPhone to capture a scene you wanted to refer back to in your writing? Photography is one of the most immediate tools we have and the wide availability of camera phones means that we are never without the means to record something for research purposes. But for all its value, a photograph provides us with only one piece of sensory information – what something looks like.
Some years ago, I spoke to an artist friend of mine and I asked him what was going on in his head when he painted a scene. His answer intrigued me; he explained how the process of painting forced him to look at a scene more deeply and to see things more comprehensively than he would otherwise do. In other words, his objectives as a painter were exactly the same as mine as a writer. Keen to see if this worked in practice, I started to carry a small box of watercolours around with my notebook and have since made a regular habit of recording critical information about the places I visit in the form of a quick painting. It has to be said that I am no loss to the art world but there is no doubt in my mind that anything I take the time to paint first is far more vivid when I come to write about it than if I simply took a photograph. Try it – it works.
The act of drawing and doodling characters, scenes and costumes can also add valuable texture and flavour to a written piece. Many writers confess to compulsively doodling when they ‘should be writing’, often rolling their eyes as if this were something wicked. My own view is that the creative process doesn’t necessarily restrict itself to the medium you happen to be working in. The doodling is an indication that, even though you may be struggling with the words, the creative process is still leaking out of you in another form. Rather than forcing yourself back to the writing, try giving in to it and see where it leads you.
On many occasions when writing IRONHEART, I used drawings to test out how a character looked, what clothes they wore, how the action in a scene worked best or even the appearance of the macguffin they were about to pursue through the next thirty chapters. In short, when I know how to draw it, then I know how to write it. Once again, stop laughing at the back and give it a try.
But if the drawing, painting and photography don’t tell you enough about your character or your story world, what then? A couple of years ago, I attended the MCM Expo exhibition in London with my son. For those unfamiliar, this is a celebration of popular culture in computer games, comics, TV and film, to which a high proportion of the attendees come dressed as their favourite fantasy character. The sheer complexity and inventiveness of the costumes they had made left me stunned; it was clear that the original gaming and comic book characters had inspired a huge outpouring of creativity in the fans.
It set me thinking. If a character could provide so much inspiration for a home-made costume, might the opposite be true? Returning home I engaged with my son in the task of creating a costume that would reflect a character I was creating for a steampunk inspired story. We scoured eBay and Oxfam to acquire a scuffed leather jacket, flying helmet and goggles and then set about dismantling a vacuum cleaner, car exhaust and an old gas tank to create a convincing rocket pack. Now I admit this was a lot of fun and I have a hard time justifying it as pure story research. However, once finished, the costume undoubtedly told me things about my character that I didn’t know at the outset.
Is this barking mad? Probably.
Was it useful? Definitely.
The point of this rather eccentric ramble is that if you expect extraordinary results as a writer, they will not come from the ‘ordinary’ methods of research that begin and end with Google. If you are a writer then, by definition, you are creative and your creativity most likely runs through you via more than one channel. Exploring the other aspects of your creativity, will unlock new ideas and give substance and depth to existing ones.
So does this qualify as real research? After all painting, drawing and model-making have very little to do with collecting facts. But this, I think, is a question of definition.
My own experience suggests research is not just about collecting facts, it is about creating authenticity and any research process that helps a writer to look harder and more thoroughly at the world will inevitably pay the biggest dividends.
More in this series:
Part One: Researching Your Children's Book
Part Three: Researching Your Children's Book: Look It Up
IRONHEART is set in Siberia and was published in January 2014 by Macmillan
THE SUN MACHINE is set in Antarctica and will be published in January 2015