All in the Name of Research

One of my fellow uni students and good pal, Ethyl, is writing a historical fiction novel set in the time of the Reformation in Scotland. I am in awe of this feat.To me, writing a novel which requires extensive research just makes the whole process more difficult and adds another layer of time and effort. But then again, others might argue that the facts are already there and ALL a writer has to do is bring them to life.  Does that mean historical fiction is far easier to write than making everything up such as in a genre like science fiction? Or is creating a believable planet Zog harder than just making sure factual details are accurate?

But even contemporary fiction is historical in the sense that by the time it gets published, then any cultural references are already dated. And even although my WIP is pure fiction, I’ve still got to research some facts or I’d be open to feedback that “there’s no way that would happen”, if the story sounded unbelievable and didn’t ring true. I know as a reader, I’m the first one to scream, “yeah, right, as if!” so I want to avoid the same criticism.

For most of my research, a quick google search tells me things like the Tattooing of Minors Act of 1969 means that it is an offence to tattoo a person under 18, even with parental permission and many other ‘interesting’ snippets that help make the story credible. I can’t imagine writing without the internet as a resource.

But I’ve also used the old-school approach and visited the library as one of the main characters in my WIP is a pet psychic and I don’t know any facts about the Other Side (who does?). It was here, where I found a book withdrawn from their stock (can’t think why!) about pets and the afterlife (the best 30p I’ve spent in ages) The book, ‘All Pets Go to Heaven’ by Sylvia Browne used to live in the reference section (yes, this book is honestly classed as non-fiction-133 Parapsychology & occultism) and has provided me with the best source of research and unintentional comedy evah!

I bet, like me, you didn’t know that lions and lambs can frolic together in heaven as there is no need to eat in the afterlife so therefore no animal is at risk of becoming dinner. Also, spirit guides talk in a high-pitched voice, “that sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks or an opera singer after inhaling helium”.

I’d never heard of the author before but again my pal google spewed up her website and numerous YouTube clips. Click on the link below if you want to see Sylvia in action but don’t blame me if you come out in a nasty rash when you suffer a bad case of the heebie-jeebies after watching the most crass and cringe worthy ‘reading’ I’ve ever seen (all in the name of research).

I wonder if Ethyl’s research into the Reformation was as blood-curdling? Have you encountered any weird and wonderful facts during research?

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7 thoughts on “All in the Name of Research

  1. Yes! My wip takes place in the 1950s during the Cold War.
    Horrible fact:During this time, the CIA used psychedelic drugs, torture, and terror on children in an attempt to create the “Manchurian Candidate”.
    Weird and wonderful: the verse by the side of the road – Berma Shave signs.

  2. Really interesting Helen – like you I wouldn’t take on anything as ambitious as a historical novel – firstly I am more interested in the here and now and secondly I would be terrified of getting it all wrong. For my novel which is partly set in Brooklyn in 1976 I went over there and talked to various people at length and we have stayed in touch ever since, with them being very involved in the ‘end’ product, and that was very important to me. They found it really weird and amusing that I had spent 2 years researching the place they live and once or twice I told them facts about Brooklyn that they weren’t previously aware of! One of the things I love about writing is the chance it offers to discover new subjects and get really into them.

    I was thinking Sylvia’s ridiculous book and your story were very funny (and they are) until I watched that clip. Sickening and unbelievable.

    • I love NY so I’d be first in the queue to read your book. Have you read Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude? I thought it evoked Brooklyn really well. And yes, the Sylvia clip is truly vile.

      • Hi Helen, for some reason I’ve only just seen your reply! Yes, Fortress of Solitude is amongst the gazillions of books set in Brooklyn that I’ve read and one of the most directly helpful for the 70s era. One of my contacts has friends who were amongst the extras in the night club scenes in Saturday Night Fever, and it don’t get much cooler than that..

  3. An interesting post, Helen. I didn’t even know pet psychics existed.
    I enjoy research far too much to set a book in the past: I’d never get round to the actual writing! I do, though, have a scene in my first novel where my MC, who’s a GP, encounters a medium claiming to have put a patient in touch with her dead son. I went online and was amazed at how many mediums there are, and the range of so-called services they offer. Made my skin crawl.

    • Yes,I’m sure it would be hard not to get sucked into spending too much time on research if it was interesting stuff. And I agree with you, the mediums out there claiming to ‘help’ people when they’re at their most vulnerable are shocking!

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