Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Research

I've spent the last week trying to fill in the research blanks on The Unquiet, the Parker novel that should, God willing, be published in 2007. I had almost forgotten how much I enjoy research, in part because The Book of Lost Things was such a different novel and its research, old folk tales and some World War II stuff apart, centered more on my memories of my own childhood than anything else.

I brought with me to the US the initial draft of The Unquiet. I imagine it would be almost unintelligible to anyone who tried to read it as a coherent narrative. My first draft tends to be a little rough. There will be inconsistencies of dialogue and character. Some characters will appear in the early stages only to disappear later, their failure to manifest themselves once again left entirely unexplained. Some things seem like good ideas at the start, but quickly prove to be distractions from the main thrust of the book, and as soon as that realisation hits me I tend to let those elements slide.

I don't fret too much about how untidy the text may be (although, in my darker moments, I wonder what might happen if I didn't live to finish the book and someone else, for whatever reason, decided to piece together whatever was left behind. I wish them luck. I mean, I've written it, and sometimes even I'm not entirely sure that I always look forward to trying to put all of the pieces together). After all, there's nobody looking over my shoulder, and my main aim is to get the plot and characters from A-Z, even if that means bypassing Q and R entirely, and occasionally having to loop back to P just to reassure myself that I have a vague notion of what I'm doing.

I'm always curious about how other authors do their research. I know quite a few who don't bother too much about going to the places featured in their books. I suppose they feel that it is, after all, fiction, and a fictitious street in a real city doesn't have to capture too much of the reality of the city itself. To be honest, I sometimes see their point. After all, I've never been to Boise, so if I read a novel set there I'm likely just to take the author's word for what it's like. Even citizens of Boise itself might be likely to give the author an occasional "Get Out of Jail Free" card for the odd lapse as long as he or she doesn't locate Boise in, say, Alabama, or have its inhabitants extolling the virtues of morning dips in the ocean.

On the other hand, I really feel that I have to know a place to write about it, even if my knowledge is never going to be quite as deep as those who have lived there all their lives. The Unquiet is set very much in Maine, almost as a reaction to The Black Angel, the plot of which spanned continents and hundreds of years of history. A portion of it is set in and around the town of Jackman, which lies just below the border with Quebec. (As someone remarked to me over dinner, it's where Americans go to throw rocks at Canadians.) I've been up to Jackman a couple of times now, and each time I learn a little bit more. On this visit, I made a 400 mile round trip in a day just to talk with a lovely lady from the town's historical society, and it was worth every minute of the journey.

Along the way, I passed a museum, one that I had never visited but which had always aroused my curiosity. I took a little time out to visit it and, in the process, discovered a little nugget of Maine history which corresponded perfectly with a significant part of the plot of The Unquiet. I would never have encountered it had I not taken the time to travel and explore.

Perhaps I'm fortunate to have the luxury of being able to poke around in a place far from home, to walk to the library of the Maine Historical Society and spend a day requesting old books and manuscripts, following up one story after another, slowly tracing the history of people and places that seem at once alien yet strangely familiar. Most of what I find I won't use - in the past, perhaps particularly with Every Dead Thing, I was reluctant to throw away research that I'd painstakingly amassed, but now I think I'm learning to keep only the good stuff, to separate the wheat from the chaff - but everything that I've seen or read about helps to make the people and places in question more real to me, and in that way I hope I can make them real to those who read my books.

Now I'm heading for home, with a notebook jammed with jottings and a folder packed with photocopies and newspaper cuttings. I will sit down at my desk, go back to the start of the draft, and slowly begin to rewrite. In a sense, the hard work is done. I know that I have the skeleton of a novel. Now it's time to add flesh to it.

Oh, and a little blood. Just a little. . .

This week John read

Pig Island by Mo Hayder
Bradenburg by Henry Porter

and listened to

Broken Boy Soldiers by The Raconteurs
Cannibal Sea by The Essex Green
Living With War by Neil Young

9 comments:

DAVID THAYER said...

Since you read Mo Hayder's Pig Island I wondered if you'd read The Devil of Nanking.

JT Ellison said...

John, it's your meticulous research that makes your novels a cut above the standard. Any writer, new or old, can learn from your post today. Well said.
JT

la traductrice said...

I really like the notion that you list what you're reading or what you're listening to in a given week...but what about telling us what you think of it? Dangerous perhaps if you don't like something I suppose...

John said...

I have read The Devil of Nanking, or Tokyo as it was titled on this side of the water. I think I preferred it to Pig Island, although they're hugely different books.
As for posting my views on the books in question, I've been tempted once or twice, but given that I often read work by writers I know and like I'd prefer not to seem either sycophantic or unduly critical. Basically, I list the books and music because I'm often asked what I read or listen to. Then again, it may be because if I start writing about the music in particular I might find it hard to stop, and I do have a book to finish . . .

Tom Hyland said...

I closely identify to ‘getting it right’. My own efforts at writing reflect a genuine attempt at sometimes recreating a ‘time’ and an environment; or an event and the characters involved in that event. But anecdotal memory oftentimes doesn’t cut it (and resists efforts at 'getting it right'). I think the inherent flaw lies inside of an innate human tendency to return (unconsciously through dreams or consciously through memory) to the site of the event in order to reshape it to fit a desired result. Trauma victims adhere strictly to that principal through their night terrors and intrusive thoughts. The subconscious mind constantly searches for a ‘better’ result than the actual remembered action.

War stories are like that and so are witness recreations of crime. Each witness is telling the truth as he or she remembers the event. But the descriptions and recalling is either slightly different in most cases or entirely different in some.

If I don’t have the facts down pat, I either go to who does or I hit the books or the internet and try and nail it.

I much appreciate and respect authors who strive for accuracy and authenticity. That said, I enjoy the effort you invest in each and every work that you've had published.

Jayne said...

John, your in-depth research is partly what makes your books so much better than the average mystery novels out there. I really do appreciate all the extra effort you put in - thanks!

klaire said...

I am looking forward to reading your next novel. I just purchased Nocturnes, though I have not begun reading.

I have a strange query though, have you ever seen the TV show Millennium? It was produced by Chris Carter several years ago, and I have always been a fan. The main character is vaguely remnicent of Parker. It was just something I was wondering the other day. If you have not viewed it, I highly recommend that you do. There are 3 seasons total. Though the 3rd was lacking a tad. ;)

~cheers
K

Rowena Brew said...

Hi John,
It's facinating to get an insight into the birth of your novel, as by the time I read them, they are perfectly formed, with all the intricate layers of reality, which I suppose comes from your extensive knowledge of your subject, which you have amassed from your research. I am very much looking forward to reading your next novel, as I still find that no other writer can hit the nail on the head quite like you do!!
Ro

Rowena Brew said...

Hi John,
It's facinating to get an insight into the birth of your novel, as by the time I read them, they are perfectly formed, with all the intricate layers of reality, which I suppose comes from your extensive knowledge of your subject, which you have amassed from your research. I am very much looking forward to reading your next novel, as I still find that no other writer can hit the nail on the head quite like you do!!
Ro