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