When I wrote my first book, Not Quite Perfect I did little ‘on the ground’ research. This was the first novel I had ever written and to be frank, I just wanted to have a go and see if I could do it. The settings for Emma and Rachel’s stories were loosely based around my home town, my former workplace and where I grew up. I had a clear picture of these locations in my head and no real desire to deviate from them.
To be honest, I didn’t want to leave the house. I just wanted to write, to get it all down and see if it made sense. I also had a four-year and two-year old at the time and they’re not always over-keen on ‘helping Mummy with research’ unless it involves playing in the park, going to the library or visiting Costa for a massive muffin. Those who have read Not Quite Perfect may remember that the book contains scenes involving all three.
As this book became a Kindle bestseller and many reviewers indicated that they’d enjoyed it, the heady realisation hit me that I was a real writer doing whatever it was that real writers do. I had a little panic that I wasn’t already researching my next book.
For this is what proper writers do, isn’t it? They’re across all aspects of their book, from what the main character had for breakfast on a rainy Tuesday in 2003 to where they first met their true and as yet unrequited love the following Wednesday. It’s all in the detail, my friends and although I jest here (I do that from time to time), a believable and therefore better character tends to be a multi-dimensional one.
When I came to write Life or Something Like It, I had already decided that my main character, Cat Nightingale worked in PR. I have never worked in PR but I know a few people who do. So I interviewed them. This was extraordinary fun. I posed lots of ‘would someone do this?’ and ‘what would happen if?’ type questions. I also did a lot of internet research about PR firms, found key people to follow on Twitter, stalked them in an entirely non-threatening and gleefully nosy way. Why haven’t I done this before, I thought? It’s like being a private detective but without having to actually be a private detective.
I have to take a moment here to thank Sir Tim Berners-Lee on behalf of writers everywhere because the internet is bloody marvellous. You can find out almost any detail without leaving the house. For example, I needed to check when the branch line to Southwold in Suffolk was disbanded. Three clicks and it was done. It was the tiniest detail in one conversation between two main characters but it is correct. Now that has to be progress.
However, I don’t always like doing things the easy way. The internet is fabulous but it makes my eyes water and my back hurt. I also realised that I couldn’t keep setting all my books in the same south-east London town. It may work for Anne Tyler (albeit Baltimore rather than Beckenham) but she’s you know, Anne Tyler.
Also, my PR guru friend had indicated that Cat Nightingale might be more of a Shoreditch House type of girl so I packed my notebook, caught the London Overground line and tried to give off an air of bearded preppy cool. I failed due to my lack of all of the aforementioned. If I sported facial hair, I reckon I could have nailed it.
Still, I am of an age where I have finally realised that no-one is looking at me; they’re much too busy staring at their iphones so I can therefore stumble along unnoticed. I can also stop to look at things, take photos and scribble interesting tidbits in my notebook. For me, this is one of the best things about being a writer because I have finally learnt to stop and look around me. I read a fascinating book called ‘Becoming a Writer’ by Dorothea Brande, where she talks about the need to see the world as a child might, through fresh and unfettered eyes. It’s not always possible but when you manage it, it can be very rewarding.
So I stopped for a coffee at a place that was neither a bar nor a coffee shop, but a little of both. I ordered a ‘how much?’ coffee and settled down to watch. All the people I observed were cool and together; they were having meetings about concepts and ‘getting the right people’. They knew what they were doing and where they were going, just like Cat. I was in the right town.
After my pricey but worth it coffee, I strolled towards Columbia Road, home of the famous flower market. It was like watching social history in action as I moved from the re-designed and re-gentrified to the impoverished and run down and back again. Many pockets of London are like this now but it still surprises me when I move so quickly from one to another.
I made my way to Wimbolt Street; a street where I imagined children playing or mothers standing chatting on their front steps in the 1950s. You’d be lucky to buy a two-bedroom house on this road for under £ 1 million these days. This was where I pictured Cat living, in one of the freshly re-rendered brick buildings with lots of natural wood, light and elegant design. I lingered for a while, taking pictures and trying to imagine my heroine returning home here after a hard day dealing with her famous clients, kicking off her heels and mixing a mojito.
I took the long route back towards the Tube, absorbing as many of the sights, sounds and smells as I could. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was doing this correctly and actually, very little of what I noted down actually ended up in the book.
However. And this is a big however. When I finally started writing the book, I had an entire notebook full of scribblings about Cat’s life. I had snippets and information and a pretty full picture of what she was like, what motivated her, what interested her and most importantly, how she would behave and speak.
Of all the books I have written, she is the character I know best. I had walked in her shoes (nicer than the ones I can afford) and strolled through her manor. I understood what made her tick. As a result, her story flowed better than any other I’ve written. This is partly due to experience but I think the research was key. It enabled me to breathe life into an idea and make her as real as I possibly could.
It has also taught me that whenever I’m in need of inspiration or more details, all I need to do is grab my notebook, jump on a train and head off to meet my latest character. If I’ve done my homework, I may even bump into them.
It doesn’t get much better than that for a writer. Unless your chosen subject matter is serial killers. Then the internet is very useful and staying at home is probably for the best.