Research: Sue shares her methods

Research: Sue shares her methods

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.)Helicopterweb

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.
  • 2014-08-21 14.32.21Of 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.)
  • HatInvaluable 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.

Questioning your hero/heroine to create plot points

Hearts and Flowers_Just as in real life, there are ways to know if  he’s the right one for her; if she’s the one who will change his life. In romantic fiction, every little telltale is something else … it’s a plot point, and therefore of huge value to the writer. A plot point is a place in your story where you have options that will take the story forward. There are possiblies, probablies, ulterior motives and what ifs. As a fun way of illustrating this I’ve adapted an old blog post I wrote where the question was ‘How do you know if you’re in love?

Let’s look at heroes and heroines asking ‘Are you in love?’ and speculate on a few ways each answer can benefit or affect your plot.

1 He puts her happiness high on his list of priorities – Possibly. He could easily be in love. Or he could be after something or just a nice guy or trying to impress her sister or best friend.

He considers her happiness … as long as it doesn’t affect his own – Probably not! This can be a great hint to the reader that the relationship’s jogging along or he has ulterior motives for being nice as long it’s not too much trouble.

2 He congratulates her on her achievements and success and tells all his friends – Probably/possibly but it doesn’t exclude him turning out to be just a good friend and there’s even a chance he wants to bask in reflected glory or benefit from her success. (Characters appearing to be something then gradually revealing their true colours is one of the joys of spinning a story. Making characters act in too straightforward a manner leaves little room for surprises.)

He congratulates her on her achievements and success and tells all his friends what a big part he had to play in them – I’m thinking ‘no’. That’s not hero behaviour. He’s too self-interested.

He doesn’t congratulate her because he’s not really listening when she tells him – The readers will cotton immediately that this is not the hero. Somewhere not too much farther into the story you’ll probably let her begin to see the light … maybe about the same time as she meets the character who is going to be the hero.

3 She can’t wait to see him. Literally,  can’t wait. She looks at his pix on her phone just to enjoy how hot he is, she crosses town just to sneak a peek at lunch time – Welllllllll … it looks like soppy-in-love behaviour, doesn’t it? But also a bit wet. Or stalky. I think this only merits a possibly and a pretty lukewarm one at that but what a great plot point if she does turn a little stalky! Although you’re going to have to work hard to convert this to heroine-like behaviour.

She does her own thing and when he has to cancel a date she shrugs – I feel pretty safe saying no. Unless you have some reason up your sleeve for making her pretend to be cool about it when she’s miserable or anxious inside then I could go as far as possibly (but as a reader I’d need convincing).

4 She’s upset. He asks why – Possibly/probably. But decent human beings do this, too. Even strangers on trains do this.

She’s upset. He asks why but is obviously thinking about how to stop her going on about it – Probably not. Unless you’ve given him an awful conflict that might account for this? He may even be protecting her from something he knows about and she doesn’t, in which case you could easily flip this into a yes.

She’s upset and he gets cross or doesn’t notice – Probably not. I’m not certain how you could bring this around so that readers like him. Unless his crossness is with the person who upset her, of course! That could be heroic.

5 He’s upset. She has a huge hollow feeling behind her breastbone and can’t concentrate at work for thinking of ways to make him feel better – I’ll give this a definite maybe. It’s certainly a point for you to begin making her realise the depths of her feelings for him and maybe even reveal them. Or she could be in for a massive disappointment if he’s upset that the woman he was about to leave your heroine for has given him the elbow.

He’s upset. She hopes he gets over it soon. He’s a man. Men are meant to hide their feelings, right? – I’m going to give this a straight out no. Unless (there’s a lot of unlessing going on in this post) you’re going to make her realise pretty quickly that she absolutely does care and spend the rest of the book letting her convince him (and the readers). It might be hard to bring off because when you cool their feelings towards someone it’s harder to warm them up again.

6 She’s going to spend time alone with him. She spends ages thinking of how to make it special/different/fun for him – Probably. Loads of potential here for you to let the readers see how she feels for him. Equally, lots of potential to make him respond like an oaf and demonstrate that he’s no hero. A lot depends on where in the story this incident occurs.

He’s going to spend time alone with her. He spends ages thinking of how to make it special/different/fun for her. And, yes, this can mean in bed! – Promising. Works well to develop the relationship or even as a epilogue to show the Happy Ever After in action. Make it interesting, though, and make it relevant.

They’re going to spend time alone together. They’re both such huge Formula 1 fans that they’re in one accord that they’re going to spend the time watching the race in total silence so that they don’t miss a word – As a total F1 nut it seems a perfect date to me but I suspect it won’t work well in your story!

7 He doesn’t want her to get a tattoo. So she doesn’t – Possibly. If he knows she wants a tattoo that much, should he really object? And if you want your heroine to have a tattoo that much can’t you just make him think it’s sexy?

He doesn’t want her to get a tattoo. But she goes ahead anyway – Probably not. I admire her making her own decisions but she actively wanted to make herself unattractive to him.

He doesn’t want her to get a tattoo. She gets one. He pretends to love it – He either loves her or he’s a wimp. But I’m not convinced about her feelings towards him. NB I hate the phrase ‘get’ a tattoo but can’t think of anything better.

8 She’s alone with him and has hot expectations – Well, it’s a good start but it may be lust alone so I’m not going to give this a yes yet. If she never has hot expectations when alone with him, it’s a no, not even a possibly.

9 Her parents don’t like him. She knows they’re wrong and tries to convince them that he’s a great guy – Possibly. But it could infatuation or even a stubborn heroine who doesn’t admit mistakes (unless you make her as part of her redemption towards the climax to the story).

His parents don’t like her. She feels they have no reason to but, it is what it is so she behaves in ways that might change their minds – Probably. Unless the characterisation you’ve given her is that she’s a people pleaser or a needy barnacle … but are they characteristics of a heroine, whom we all need to warm to? And should the hero be standing up for her? (My answer to this last point is ‘yes’ if he knows about it.)

His parents don’t like her and she’s just glad to be let out of all the family occasions and can’t see why he should mind that – Unlikely! That’s a pretty cold attitude from someone we ought to warm to.

10 She just knows. He just knows – Lucky them. Unlucky you because you probably need a  lot more to your plot. You don’t want them just ‘knowing’. You want conflicted feelings, conflicted goals, fences that divide them, obstacles that get in their way, misunderstandings that mess with their heads and keep the readers on the edges of their seats until you finally let them find their Happy Ever After through overcoming obstacles, sorting out misunderstandings and learning that love means not always putting yourself first.

Yes ...