Thursday, 5 February 2009


In my early days as a writer, I never used to be a great fan of research. I probably took the old advice ‘write about what you know’ rather too literally. But all too soon, I ran out of things I knew – and I needed to find out more intriguing stuff to make sure that my new stories remained fresh and, where possible, ‘different’. Over the past few years, I’ve done a great deal of research, and although it can be time-consuming, it’s also very enjoyable.

Often, research is straightforward, at least in theory. To write credible Lake District scenes set in the bleak midwinter, for instance, you really have no choice but to brave the elements and see what the place is like when the tourists are few and far between. It was relatively easy, when writing Waterloo Sunset, to explore places in Liverpool where scenes were set – the map on my website highlights some of them. And the marvellous help given to me by the City Coroner, Andre Rebello, made a real difference to key aspects of the story.

Reading the newspapers can be very useful – so can surfing the net. I keep press cuttings about things that strike me as odd or entertaining, and a story I clipped from a national newspaper 20 years ago has helped me with the novel I’m writing at present.

But sometimes effective research takes a much less tangible form – it can be more a matter of talking to people, and letting ideas seep into your consciousness. The joy of escapist fiction is that the incidents and characters that emerge are very different from those you have encountered in real life. And yet, without the spark of a stimulating conversation, you might never have had those ideas. Something I remind myself of when in anti-social mood!

Over the past fortnight, for instance, I’ve had the pleasure of conversations with some fascinating people, including a barrister, a judge, a retired taxman, and a former SAS man, as well as soaking up the atmosphere in the directors’ box and guest lounge at a big football match. The conversations were fun for their own sake, and I wasn’t particularly discussing plot ideas with my companions, but they are all knowledgeable and friendly people, with interesting things to say not only about their work, but also about life in general. Perhaps one of these days, their insights will help inspire a plot element in a future story - it's the closest I can get to defining 'inspiration'. But just in case they don’t, I’ll keep devouring any scraps of information that catch my interest, from any source I can find.


Barbara Martin said...

Whenever I hear a conversation that piques my attention I make a quick jotting down on a pad I carry for that purpose. I'm like you in that sense, of using an overheard comment or seeing something odd in my manuscripts.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Barbara, good to hear from you. I think Agatha Christie did the same. One phrase that she overheard gave her material for two different novels - quite something!