Thursday, October 1, 2015

Mooching about and gawping

I get quite intimidated when people start talking about research. A writing friend said only last week that he doesn't read as much fiction as he'd like to because he always reading books for research. I nodded and smiled and changed the subject.

The last time I read a reference book for research was three of my own books back. I read No Mean City, the classic expos-ay (can't find the e-acute symbol) of (some say hatchet job on) 1930s Glasgow, for Dandy Gilver and The Unpleasantness in The Ballroom.

Since then I've written Quiet Neighbors (May 2016), Dandy Gilver and Some Nuns (working title) and am halfway through The New Book (barely working title) without cracking a single volume.

What I have done - and this answers the other half of the question - is trumph about and stare at stuff, sniffing the air and listening to the birdsong. Quiet Neighbors is set in Wigtown - Scotland's book town - and I spent four days down there last summer, during the annual book festival. A casual observer might have thought I was stoned, or trying to remember if I'd turned the oven off, as I dawdled up and down the streets of the town, sat on benches, looked out from the harbourside and watched the clouds roll by.

Wigtown 2014
My research into the nuns was even more aimless. I set the fictional convent (and a nearby insane asylum) on the Lanark Moor. It doesn't even have streets or anywhere for a tractor to idle while the driver gets his morning paper. The sum total of my research for the nuns was me standing on the moor, with the wind blasting my cheeks, thinking of how to describe the sound of it in the dry grasses and what the shade of the hills could be called. (Jenny Milchman, incidentally, described it perfectly in As Night Falls. She was talking about the Adirondacks in winter, but it would do for Scotland in summer: "a landscape the colour of potato peelings".)

Of course, the internet is great for swooping in and answering little questions, but you have to be careful. I researched traditional nun's clothing: guimpe, cap, wimple, robe, scapula . . . but I had a scene in the convent laundry and I wanted to know what they might wear underneath that could be being boiled in the copper. People: never put "nun's underwear" into Google. Trust me

No comments: