Research: when, how and what?

I’m doing an online crime writing course with the Professional Writers’ Academy, and Week Three is devoted to ‘research’. This is not the first thinking I’ve done about it: you can’t write a family saga based in a specific place (West Cumbria), and a specific time  (the first half of the twentieth century), without spending a daunting amount of time digging for details, followed by even more time deciding how little of that detail is actually needed. What I’m beginning to understand are the various layers and type of research to be undertaken, and when’s the best time to do it. The first duty of a writer after all is to write, and you have to make sure that research doesn’t become a distraction from the writing rather than a necessary preparation for it.

As soon as I’ve decided on the ‘setting’, both time and place, I’ll start researching the first layer of information. It could be about the geography of the area, using maps and visits, just to get the lie of the land, literally. Or it could be combing through the newspapers for the given time, looking for the details of lives lived at the time and the background events. In 1969 the first people walked on the moon, and the provisional IRA was formed, both of which might be in the minds of my characters at that time, or have a bearing on the plot. The original germ of an idea for a story can be helped by this immersion in the times, and some details or incidents jump out at you. Many things may find their way into your notebook, but only a few really stick in the mind. I recall the court case reported during rationing in 1947, where it was explained that an illegal ham hanging in someone’s attic was discovered when a mouse ate through the string and the ham crashed through the ceiling into someone’s bedroom. That found its way into my second novel ‘Forgiven’. In the third one ‘Fallout’ I’m inside the nuclear plant at Windscale ten years later and learn that one of the essential maintenance procedures for the reactor required someone to hold down a button with their finger for long periods of time, until the finger hurt. Who knew? It showed just how troublesome the care of the old reactor had become.

You have to know when to stop ‘reading around’, or the fascination of what you discover can absorb too much of the energy that should now be devoted to the next stage, getting on with the development of the plot and the characters, and on into the first draft. When you get writing, you quickly discover the gaps in the research that will need to be filled, and the list of specific questions mount. What model of motorbike would someone buy in 1947? What were police radios like in 1969? What would be on the juke box in the cafe in 1970? When and why was the decision made to turn off the fans in the burning reactor?

A remarkable number of these questions can be answered without ever leaving the house, if you’re prepared to pick away online until the answer is found. Even better, you can sometimes discover the gold seam of authentic first hand ‘primary’ information, such as the transcription of the accident enquiry about the William pit explosion of August 1947 that was part of the backdrop of ‘Forgiven’. Or the 1985 Hughes Report on the Kincora Boys’ Home scandal in Belfast that provided much of the background of institutional child abuse that I used in ‘Cruel Tide’.

But some of the best information is uncovered when you talk to people. They give you snippets that you would never find elsewhere and add valuable authenticity to your story. I heard from an ex-policeman that he refused to drive a Panda car on his rounds when they came into use because it would have meant swapping his helmet for a flat cap, and he wouldn’t do it. The daughter of a woman who’d sorted coal in the screen shed at a local pit told me that the screen lasses had to wear gloves whenever they went out to cover their scarred hands that no amount of scrubbing could properly clean. Hard work, and hard times, before the process was mechanised and the screen lasses passed into history.

I learned the hard way that much of this wonderful detail can slow your story down and has to be sacrificed to ‘pace’. In the first novel ‘A Good Liar’ great swathes of background detail about a minor character’s clothes and shoes was cut out, and some of looping ‘side-stories’ needed to go as well: however interesting, they were a distraction and inessential to the main thrust of the action. They had to go, however much it grieved me.

Maybe I’ve made this rod for my own back. It might be less onerous, and authentic detail more straight-forward, if I chose contemporary settings. Historical settings make the writing life harder, with more hours necessarily devoted to gathering and checking the detail. But I still think that such a setting lengthens the shelf-life of the book, which matters a great deal to a self-published author whose promotion and sales have to be spread over a longer time frame than the commercial publishers. So long as I keep writing and publishing, my previous books will keep selling as they are already set in the past and cannot therefore age.

 

Where do plots come from?

I’m sure anyone who writes a novel is asked the question: ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ I can’t speak for anyone else, but thinking back on the books I’ve written so far, there seem to be a few places where plot ideas come from.

  • My own experience, things that have happened to me personally, together with all the emotions that surrounded them. Some of these are from decades ago, others more recent. I’m not providing any examples of these, to preserve my own privacy and the trust of those around me.
  • Stories or snippets of stories I’ve heard from other people. One of these, told to me many years ago, concerned growing up in Belfast in the 1960s with a Catholic father and protestant mother. Another, just a memorable snippet, was about a young man whose wife left him and then returned to their house a few days later while he was at work and removed every stick of furniture, every carpet, curtain and light fitting. He was too shocked and humiliated to track her down.
  • Details gleaned from contemporary newspapers and accounts. I use the Whitehaven News for some of this background colour, peering at the microfilm reader to find authentic details that could later become small valuable nuggets in the story. It’s a useful source as it’s weekly and contains all the court cases, petty theft, accidents, and features that add depth to the picture I’m painting. The post-war period I researched for ‘Forgiven’ was rich in detail that evoked that particular time: the parish council resolution that refused to celebrate the anniversary of VE Day in 1946 as they had ‘nothing to celebrate and nothing to celebrate with’; the couple who were caught handling blackmarket pork when a mouse ate through the string supporting a heavy illegal ham hanging upstairs, with damaging consequences. In ‘Sellafield Stories’ an oral history of the Cumbrian nuclear plant I found some rich detail about the reactor fire of October 1957 from people who were there at the time. Transcripts of hearings and enquiries are also great ‘primary sources’, raw, unfiltered by anything except the capacity of the note-taker to capture everything that was said. One of the survivors of the William Pit disaster of August 1947 gave evidence to the official enquiry about his experience of the explosion and his escape from the mine, and I took some of his words directly into my text for ‘Forgiven’. Maybe it’s the historian in me that get so excited about the authenticity of evidence like that.
  • Places, and what might have happened, or could happen in this setting. When I did the walk across Morecambe Bay from Arnside a year or two ago I was very struck by the care we had to use when approaching the shore at Kents Bank to avoid a shiny grey patch of mud that wobbled visibly as we came close. This was quicksand, and a false step into it could have been life-threatening. My latest novel ‘Cruel Tide’ drew its opening scene from this experience.

None of these nuggets, of themselves, provide you with a plot, but some of them will provoke the essential ‘what if?’ questions from which great stories can be created. They also remind you of features of earlier times that could provide a starting point. For the novel I’m researching at present, a casual meander around some websites has already provided a striking image that will anchor the plot at the start and leave an after-taste of menace and threat. I had to decide who would witness this image, where, when and how, and what impact it might have, and the story began to take shape. It’s very early days yet, but I’m pretty sure that I already have the first chapter. Once I get to that stage, the story ideas begin to bubble up, adding more strands and twists. The trick is to know when to stop adding layer after layer of complexity and characters, how to shape the story into the necessary peaks and troughs, and then take a deep breath and start….’Chapter One’.

It’s show time!

Last weekend I went to Gosforth Show, my first and possibly my only local show of the season. The summer months here in Cumbria are stuffed with shows: from July to September there’s one every Saturday and Sunday, and sometimes mid-week as well. Some are small, some massive. The biggest ones are generally in the more populous and popular areas of the Lake District, taking advantage of the influx of visitors at this time of the year. The formula is always much the same: local farmers and gardeners present their offerings in a large number of ‘classes’. It could be ‘best Herdwick tup’ (ram), or best calf, or leeks, or sweet peas, or even strawberry jam or Victoria sponge cake. Competition is fierce and the winners are impressive. And of course there are ‘attractions’ such as the ‘monster trucks’ at Gosforth Show this year, which apparently cost a fortune but may have contributed to the biggest numbers ever attending the show. I managed not to see them, but from my spot in the Local History tent the noise was deafening. During the display women of my age came to visit me, asking ‘Why does anyone want to watch those ghastly things?’, to which I had no adequate response.

Despite the noisy mysteries of the monster trucks, I had a great time, so good in fact that I didn’t have a chance to see the rest of the show beyond the Local History tent until I carried my stuff to the car at the end of the day, just as the Grand Parade of all the animal winners was processing round the ring. What did I do all day, you might ask. Well, I stood in front of the home-made display explaining and illustrating my novels, talked to people who passed by, and sold a heap of books as well. There were some great conversations, about the settings of my trilogy, which book readers preferred, and why, and the local events that form the background of the plots. A couple stopped by, and the man stared at the cover of the third book ‘Fallout’, which depicts some of the men who went to fight the fire in the nuclear reactor at Windscale in 1957, wearing their protective suits and helmets. He pointed at one of the men in the line. ‘That’s my Dad,’ he said. I was thrilled to have found such a close connection to this iconic event in Cumbria’s history. He was thrilled to see his Dad on the front cover of a book, albeit unrecognisable in his anti-contamination gear. The man was so thrilled he bought the whole trilogy. I did assiduous research for the Windscale details, and I hope this reader finds the result interesting at a personal level.

I can’t remember how many people came by to tell me that they’d read and enjoyed my books and to enquire about the next one. And there was the usual number of people who told me how many others they had lent their copies to. Sometimes books lent out don’t come back, and there’s good business in replacing them, which is fine.

There’s a special reason why I enjoy the Gosforth Show in particular. In the second book of the trilogy ‘Forgiven’ a key scene is set at this show, in 1947, which marks another backward step in the relationship between my flawed and sometimes thoughtless heroine Jessie and her daughter-in-law Maggie. Writing it made me wince and smile simultaneously. As one of my readers has told me, ‘That Jessie, sometimes I could slap her.’

By the end of the day I’d sold more books than I would sell through other outlets in a month or more. It meant standing on damp grass in a draughty tent for five hours, but so what. When you self-publish that’s part of what you sign up for, and I’m lucky that I enjoy it so much. On Saturday September 3rd I’m doing a workshop at the Borderlines Book Festival in Carlisle. It’s called ‘Successful Self-Publishing’ which might be on the optimistic side, but it’s a better title than ‘How to try really hard to self publish without losing money’. I’m learning all the time and it’ll be fun to share, and to find out how other people are managing too. If you Google ‘Borderlines Carlisle’ you’ll find the details among the workshops at Tullie House, on Sept. 5th at 2-5pm.

Another book group question: why ‘Forgiven’?

It’s interesting how the request for questions about the books started me thinking about them, and what they mean and represent to me, a year or two after writing them. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the title of the second one ‘Forgiven’. As I was writing it, I was very aware of the need – and the difficulty – to forgive ourselves and each other for past mistakes. John needs to forgive his mother, but she sometimes makes it so hard for him to do so. Maggie may need to forgive her mother-in-law for letting go of John as a baby, but she never does. The relationship between Jessie and her Maggie is a classic, never really resolved. There’s a great confrontation between the two of them early on in Forgiven that I really enjoyed writing.

As the second book, Forgiven has always sold less well than the other two, in paperback and on Kindle. Partly I feel that may be about the cover, which gives no indication of what lies within. Or it might be the ‘middle book’ problem, less ‘separate’ than the first of last of the trilogy. Forgiven has less external tension in the plot than the others, but more internal tension, in the relationships. I smiled and cried more writing that one than either of the others. Jessie is her own worst enemy, prickly and careless, but I felt for her. I’d love to know what other readers made of her in ‘Forgiven’. Can we forgive her, and hope she mends her ways, or do we accept her just as she is?

Jessie’s question to Matthew Dawson, her apparently attractive suitor, is ‘Why should I want or accept your forgiveness, when I feel I’ve done nothing to be forgiven for?’ Forgiveness is clearly in her mind a double-edged concept, implying ‘fault’ in the person to be forgiven. Is that always true?

Book group questions for my trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’

An email last week (thanks, Lesley) prompted me to think for the first time about book groups reading my books, either as a whole trilogy or just one of the three. I know that the library service in Cumbria has sets of each of the books for loan for this purpose, and I meet people who have read my books with their group, but I didn’t realise that this sometimes entailed using pre-written questions.

ruth_sutton_triolgy covers

I’ve had a go at creating several questions, in the hope that they might engender some interesting discussion. They seem a bit vague and generic, and I’m sure readers can think of better ones for themselves, but here goes. There are four for each book, and three more that apply to the whole trilogy, which could be adapted for any of the books. Some of the questions for an individual book could be applied for the others too. Mix and match.

I would really love to hear these discussions myself!

A Good Liar

1. How are the characters of Jessie and John introduced to the reader? What do you initially feel about them? Do they develop as the story proceeds, and in what ways?

2. What do you make of Jessie’s affair with Andrew? What does it show about her character, and his?

3. Which passages from the book did you particularly enjoy, or not, and why?

4. This was the author’s first novel: what feedback or advice would you offer her for the future?

Forgiven

1. How is life in a mining community conveyed? Did you find it convincing?

2. Jessie’s independence is threatened in various ways during this story. How does she deal with these developments, and how do you feel about the choices she makes?

3. Do you believe that Maggie genuinely loves John, or is she attracted by what he can offer her?

4. How does the relationship between Jessie and Agnes develop? (This is especially interesting if you’ve witnessed it from the beginning in A Good Liar). What do you think about Agnes’ motives and behaviour?

Fallout

1. How is the character of Lawrence Finer introduced? Do you find him convincing, and what does he add to the story?

2. Do the technical details in this book about the Windscale reactor and the 1957 fire interest you? What could the author have done to improve this aspect of the story?

3. Some of the characters, e.g. Tom Tuohy, were real people working at Windscale in 1957. How does the author weave together fact and fiction. Does it work?

4. The ending of the book, and of the whole trilogy, is left open-ended. Is this satisfying? How would you have liked the book to end?

Between the Mountains and the Sea: the trilogy as a whole

1. Three different communities and decades are explored during the trilogy: what sense did you get of time and place in each of them? Were they convincing and interesting?

2. Does the dialogue contribute to your understanding of the characters? What did you like or dislike about the approach to dialogue?

3. What issues does an author have to consider when writing a trilogy? How has the author dealt with some of these issues?

If you find these questions useful, or have some better ones, let me know. And if you actually use them for a book group discussion, I’d love to know that too, and anything of the feedback or interesting insights that resulted. The next book Cruel Tide, due out in November 2015 is a crime story, and I think the questions might be a bit different.

The author as tyrant: is writing stories a form of control?

With novel number 4 all but finished, I find my mind turning on what next. There was an interesting conversation the other day about a possible plot for book 5, and I heard myself saying, ‘Well, I could kill off so-and-so, and have so-and-so falsely accused, etc etc,’ as if my characters are just pawns in my chess game. Which of course they are.

During the very first painful writing experience I recall deciding that one of the main characters should fall seriously ill and might die. I liked this character and had thought a lot about him, his childhood, his anxieties and frustrations, his strengths and talents, and I was proposing to bump him off on a whim, because I wanted to, and more importantly because I could.

As a happily single and self-employed person I must have a need for control over my own life that is perhaps higher than the normal. Creating characters and writing stories about them may be an extension of that inclination to be in charge. Novelists will tell you that their characters have a life of their own, and in their day to day actions that’s true, but ultimately if their creator decides to bump them off, or incapacitate them, they are powerless to resist. The author rules, OK?

By the end of book 2 ‘Forgiven’ I’d decided that one of the characters had outlived her usefulness to the development of the overall story and would have to go. The only question was when and how. In the end I started book 3 with a death, which upset some readers, but ‘tough’. Death is part of life, as are serious illness, unwanted pregnancy, and addictions of various kinds. We need characters who are stable and comfortable and reasonably happy, but they don’t make good stories and usually end up being hapless victims or just a counterpoint to the more interesting complexities of far less likeable people. And I’m the one who gets to decide, who lives, who dies, when, how and to what effect. I need to think about what this says about me.

Should I change the cover of one of my books?

The publication of my second novel ‘Forgiven’ in 2013 felt very stressful, or at least that’s how I remember it. I felt it was better than the first one ‘A Good Liar’ and had certainly been easier to write, taking a year rather than the previous tortuous four year process. But I underestimated how long it would take to get the final stages of the publication business sorted out, and wanted to get it out into the shops as early as possible in the Lake District visitor season, when probably I should have taken decisions more carefully. Patience was never my strong suit.

The main frustration was about the cover. The cover of ‘A Good Liar’ had taken quite a while to put together and consisted of three parts: a old photo of schoolchildren to place the story in its time; an atmospheric picture of Wastwater to reflect the setting; and a profile of a woman to indicate that the protagonist was female. As one of the booksellers told me, ‘It’s a good cover because it tells the reader about what’s inside.’ When it came to part 2 of the trilogy ‘Forgiven’ I struggled first with the title, which doesn’t give much away, but did pick up one of the themes of the book, and I quite like one word titles. The setting was mainly west Cumbria and the town of Whitehaven in the immediate post-war years, with a family of coal miners at the centre of the action. The cover we ended up with was a gorgeous photo of the local landscape in spring, from a photo taken at about this time of year, when the valley floors were bright green with new grass and there was still snow on the fell tops. A lovely image, but it told the reader very little about the book itself. 

From the outset, this book has sold less well than ‘A Good Liar’ and when the third in the trilogy was published the following year, that one sold better too. I began to wonder whether one reason for this might be the enigmatic title or cover of ‘Forgiven’. If the author’s name is well-known then I’m not sure that title and cover matter very much. But I’m expecting visitors to Cumbria to pick this book off a shelf and be interested enough in it to buy it, and why would they, really? They don’t know me from a hole in the ground. They need more at first glance than ‘Forgiven’ could offer them. For ebooks the cover matters less, but for a book on a shelf, competing with others in the reader’s view, the cover matters more.

If I’m right about this, I’m asking myself whether I should approach the reprint of ‘Forgiven’ as an opportunity to ‘re-brand’ it with a new cover. The title is fixed and unchangeable, but changing the cover would be easy and there are many precedents for doing so in the traditional publishing world. As a self-publisher I have absolute discretion about how my work should look, and this could be the time to exercise it.

So, I’m back to the age-old question, what makes a good book cover? The bookseller I referred to earlier takes the functional approach: the cover should indicate what’s between the covers. In that case I might need some reference to winter, hard times and to the pits, and perhaps some images of people of the period. In other words, I could use the same formula as we used for the first cover. Or I could use a more striking image, such as the one I chose for book 3 of the trilogy ‘Fallout’, and enjoy the mixed views that followed. The cover of ‘Fallout’ was designed to surprise, if not shock, the reader and succeeded in that intent, for good or ill.

I’ll have a few months to think about it as there are still enough from the first print run of ‘Forgiven’ to see us through this summer’s busy season. Is a picture of an old coal mine a turn-off for the largely female readership my books attract? Should I hold out for an image of the screen lasses, the remarkable women who worked on the surface sorting and grading the coal, despite the copyright issues that we ran into last time? It’ll be interesting to start again and take longer over the design than I did last time, and even more interesting to see whether a different cover affects sales. 

The beauty of writing historical fiction is that it doesn’t have a limited shelf-life: it can be as relevant in ten years’ time as it is now. But the down-side of that agelessness is that it can’t burst upon a waiting world as something completely of its time, new fresh, contemporary. Within the historical fiction genre I’ve tried to avoid the Catherine Cookson cliches, and romanticising a past era that was challenging, complicated and fraught with ambivalence. The cover could reflect some of that at least, rather the rather bland if beautiful image it has at present.

Writing this post has made up my mind. I’ll start thinking about the cover of ‘Forgiven’ now and give myself, and the cover designer I work with, more time to make the best choice. And my new crime fiction book which is due out in November will need a brilliant cover too, which should be ticking over in the back of my mind from now on, while I’m still writing the first draft. Not for the first time, I realise that turning thoughts into words – written or spoken – helps me to pin down what I’m thinking about. I’ll be another year older this week, and beyond the age when my mother’s Alzheimers started. I keep looking for signs that my brain is seizing up, but for the time being, thank heaven, ‘cogito ergo sum’.