On Being A professional Writer 9: The Research
How many rounds do you order if you’ve gone to the pub after a work event? My general rule of thumb is; if there are three of you, that’s one round each, making three pints, which is perfectly sociably acceptable. If you decide to go to a fourth round, this could lead to everyone completing their second round and digging in for a long night, at which point stupid questions come out, i.e. ‘Who would win in a fight, Vin Diesel or Batman?’
Why am I wondering about this? Because an American writer friend of mine is setting her new novel here and can’t afford to come over, and needs to know things that internet research can’t tell her. Staying with the question above, the pub is the Lady Ottoline, a new gastropub (and very good too). Ah, who was Lady O? I explain she was a barmy spiritualist and society hostess who lived in that street in the 1920s, but the pub would have had a different name then, obviously, and has been renamed. I then explain how gastropubs work.
Despite the fact that this is a phone conversation, I can sense my friend raising her hand. But pubs don’t allow children, so how can families eat in them? Well, children can eat in the restaurant part but can’t go to the bar. The rules aren’t hard and fast. Now we get into a complicated grey area of British life; the multi-use of buildings. My nearest pub is partly a sex club, partly a family restaurant, partly an office hangout. Different times, different areas of the space.
Now I’m in a mess. The last time I got this tangled was trying to explain why the psychologically cruel play ‘Abigail’s Party’ has audiences in fits of laughter while in it, a man lays dying of a heart attack on the living room floor. My explanation ends up involving Britain’s attitude to mental cruelty and love of smut, Viz Comics and why sexual objectification is okay if it’s a St Trinian’s party.
I’m sure the same problem would exist if I needed to know what a wild night out in Texas or Calgary involved. I can look up the names of places from here, see them on Google Earth, but it tells me nothing about the complexity social attitudes at work. To return to the drinking research, I know from personal experience that US bars have radically different connotations compared to UK pubs, where you can drink alone without anyone thinking you’re an alcoholic.
A great many fine writers attempt a Victorian novel and get it hopelessly wrong. They conduct diligent research and correctly hone their details (although I did come across one novelist who had her titled hero tip a cockney cabbie a ten-pence piece a century too early) but they fail to establish the almost unimaginable gulf between the classes, and the prevailing moral and religious climate that informed every level of Victorian life. If you want a sense of what Victorian England was like it’s a good idea to visit certain parts of India, where you’ll still hear English sentence structures from 120 years ago.
The solution, which it seems many surprisingly well-known writers quail at, is to talk to strangers, and as many as possible – otherwise you’ll get the data right but you’ll never get the atmosphere correct. The devil really is in the details.