On Being A professional Writer 9: The Research

London, Observatory


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.

18 comments on “On Being A professional Writer 9: The Research”

  1. Jane says:

    The answer is to switch to the Aussie way of serving beer in pots ie a 10 oz or 285 ml glass. This means that a larger group can participate in a round / shout without getting as drunk. It has the added benefit of beer served regularly in a clean glass and smaller quantities is colder / fresher.

  2. pheeny says:

    I suspect it would be difficult if not impossible to write a sympathetic hero from another time period without importing a modicum of modern sensibilities, although if overdone it grates as much as the ten pence piece. For eg the “spirited” sexually liberated female characters in novels set in Victorian times – who in real Victorian times would most likely be forced onto the streets or into an aslylum (according to class)

  3. Gareth says:

    But only if you are in Melbourne, Jane! Pots are a Victorian term – if you go to a pub in New South Wales or WA, they have schooners and middies. If you order a pot in Perth, as I did once, you’ll hear: “you must be from Melbourne!”

  4. Jo W says:

    Admin,I totally agree with you about being able to drink alone in a British pub. As a female, I have no qualms about stopping off for a glass,especially on a non-productive shopping trip. I feel quite safe,but that may have something to do with my age!

  5. Ken Murray says:

    This pub reminds me of a little pub I used to frequent when I worked at the Eastman. It was on a corner of either Sidmouth or Harrison St., off Gray’S Inn Road?

  6. Bob Low says:

    The trick for a writer is to make their ”research” seem like ”knowledge”, and it strikes me that the only real way to pull this off is, as Admin says, by actually talking to people, and making observations, if possible. Martin Cruz Smith was particularly good at this, in his Russian set thrillers of the eighties and nineties. Tom Clancy was the opposite side of the coin, where the research tended to come in solid, indigestible chunks that screamed out ”Here Are the Bits I had to Look Up/Ask Someone About”.

  7. Dan Terrell says:

    I agree talking to people is the way to go, but I have found that if you do your research diligently – and it can be tough to do – you may end up with more partial knowledge than the people you try to talk with.
    “You’ve worked here nearly thirty years now? You must know the neighborhood well. Good, good. Remember the fountain in this photo? You don’t. Oh. It was supposed to be across the street. No. Isn’t this South Park Way? It is. Well, I don’t believe it’s the fountain five blocks over on Wig Weavers Way. That’s a smallish affair. Yes, goodbye; thanks, anyway.”
    But there is no substitute for “boots on the ground” (Donald Rumsfeld, I believe)
    Last year in Germany, I discovered that when a character of mine walked to his place of employment, he’d go up hill, by a small town square, and across to his work site. And a rather steep hill it was, therefore the cobbles would have been dangerous on wet, icy and/or snowy days. For all my research – and no Goggle Street pictures available – who knew.
    It is the devil to get the details right and trust me you can only cross your fingers if you fudged a detail. (Better to leave it out) There is always someone who knows, probably it’s his/her life’s passion, which the world doesn’t know until you’re taken to task.
    “I lost all interest in the book once I realized the ‘author’ did not know that the Quintucket regiment’s officer’s jacket buttons were manufactured in Luftsbridge, Pennsylvania NOT, repeat NOT, in Brookfield, Mass…. Shameful.” This is the curse of Goodreads.

  8. pheeny says:

    ”Here Are the Bits I had to Look Up/Ask Someone About”.

    I know exactly what you mean. Quite often I suspect the writer has spent so much time and energy on research (or possibly are so fascinated by what they discovered) that they cannot resist cramming it in come what may – yes “Clan of the Cave Bear” I am looking at you

  9. Janet Wilson says:

    Anyone over 50 is likely to have encountered someone born in the 19thc., but whether they could have had a conversation is another matter, given the post 1960 generation gap. Perhaps I have trouble reading ‘realistic’ historical fiction because of this need to make the past acceptable to a current audience. For instance, you can’t say anything about radicals in the English civil war period unless you accept that they REALLY believed that God was working His will through them- it wasn’t a pose! I’m sure everyone can think of examples from their own favourite periods where they’ve felt the force of hindsight in the dialogue. And then there’s just plain bad writing; I always remember picking up a Sword & Sandals tale and getting no further than ‘the Roman Empire was unravelling like a badly knitted sweater.’

  10. Dan Terrell says:

    Janet, was it knitting needles they used then to kill Caesar?

  11. Janet Wilson says:

    Dan, are you familiar with one of the best loved lines in English cinema, when Kenneth Williams as Cæsar staggers forward with a dagger sticking out of his toga and a cry of ‘Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me..!’? Not a knitting needle in sight- that’s accurate historical drama…

  12. Helen Martin says:

    And the murder was investigated by Flavius Maximus, private Roman eye, if you are Canadian. He went into a bar and asked for a ‘martinus’. Don’t you mean martini? If I want two I’ll ask for them. How many would get that today? “All right, Brutus, come out or we’ll throw incense.” The sketch was called “Rinse the Blood off My Toga”. Wayne and Shuster in their glory days of the forties and fifties.They did a French revolution piece called The Brown Pumpernickel and a takeoff on Hamlet set on a baseball field in Stratford, Ontario, “The catcher hath bean-ed him.” “Good night sweet prince, may flights of batboys….”
    Sorry, the memory is too vivid.

  13. admin says:

    Can I just point out how much I love my readership? How we got from pubs to Roman jumpers is yet another example of fine conversation.

  14. Diogenes says:

    I have read so many crap London based novels by Americans that I’ve now got a permanent ban on them.

  15. Dan Terrell says:

    Diogenes – Can’t agree more and it goes the other way, too. Frequently it seems a lot of the non-American writer’s research is done in the cinema and taken from other writers novels. Dialogue is often the worst offender. It’s even worse (dialogue plus all else) when the country is truly foreign and you still recognize it’s faked – like the old b/w, back lot epics where the palms don’t move in the hurricane, but bits of stuff blow by the actors.
    The *rap I’ve read on Afghanistan, and seen, is unbelievable (but then I lived there for 5 years); in fact on any foreign country off the direct-to air route, well.. even then. When a writer can’t make it feel right, even if he’s applying fudge patches here and there, I loose all tolerance. I’m you from a 180 degrees.

  16. Helen Martin says:

    Diogenes – including Martha Grimes and Laurie King?

  17. glasgow1975 says:

    It’s not even historical errors these days, I read a book recently where a couple of people were bundled into the backseat of a SMART car . . . you know, those famously small 2 seater cars?

  18. Helen Martin says:

    If you’re wondering about the name of the pub, the lettering on the window says “Kings Arms” (no possessive).

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