I love the research connected to my books. Research trips for The Christmas Promise took me repeatedly to London – Camden (including cafes that sold great cake and shops that sold incredible shoes), Balham, and an exhibition of graphic art at the British Library. My next book, due out next summer and currently bearing the working title of Just for the Holidays, necessitated (yes, truly necessitated) a four-day trip to Strasbourg and a helicopter pilot taking me up and pretending to crash (read about it here). The helicopter event is my happiest research moment to date.
The book I’m just beginning to plan, which currently has the snappy title of My Next Book, is causing me to watch a lot of property programmes and learn about being an interior decorator. (Fun, but nothing on the helicopter.)
As people frequently ask me about my research (‘You went up in a helicopter and did WHAT?’) I thought I’d share with you how I go about things.
- Early research into a place sees me buying maps and books, plus ransacking any handy Tourist Information office for leaflets and timetables. It really helps me to read all this material and keep it to hand while the book’s being written. Nothing slows my output so much as me thinking, ‘You have no idea what you’re talking about, do you?’
- I walk for miles around the area with my phone. NB I’d take a digital camera, too, if my phone had a small memory or didn’t take good pix.
- I have to put a word in for technology here – a good phone makes research effective. I take photo after photo. Not just buildings or markets, but road signs (very useful to take the one near where you leave the car, by the way) and notices.
- When a fabulous idea bursts into my imagination, I activate the voice recorder on my phone. Nobody thinks I’m nuts, talking into a phone. I chatter on about what might happen when Ava and Sam have breakfast the morning after Patrick’s party and note that the fastest way from the ‘caff’ to the station is probably across Sainsbury’s car park.
- Back home in Northamptonshire I download the images onto my much-loved Mac and, ta-dah! My memories made real. The images are also filed handily in the order in which I took them, which can be a huge help when I’m later writing about a character’s route home.
- Of course, I do some of the nutty novelist stuff, too (helicopter!), like wandering around Camden until I find the street where Ava and Izz live (it’s just off Kentish Town Road and all the houses are different colours, like a Quality Street tin) and falling into conversation with a much-decorated Goth couple just to find how cool it really is to live in Camden Town. (Very, apparently, especially around the markets in summer.)
- Invaluable to me is getting the right people to talk to me about whatever it is I need to know. I tend to look out for suitable careers for my characters and a few years ago I happened to be on a radio programme for BBC Radio Cambridgeshire with Abigail Crampton of Abigail Crampton Millinery. I said hers would be an ideal job for one of my heroines and when I finally got around to the right heroine, I emailed Abigail and asked for help. She kindly invited me to her studio and, since then, I have invited myself to her hat-making demonstrations, back to her studio, and invited her to read my manuscript twice and get involved in the promo for the book. (Truthfully, you need a certain amount of front to make strangers into friends so that you can shamelessly pick their brains and email screeds of questions for months on end, but it’s a skill well worth cultivating.)
- I say ‘thank you!’ a lot, too.