Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Wednesday, 6 March 2013

How important is background research? by Jenny Harper

Did anyone else watch Jeffrey Archer the other morning? Not only does he sit down every day and work from nine till five, but he also claims he never knows what's going to happen in his books until a page or two before he writes it.

I know we've talked about this quite a lot on here - writers are endlessly fascinated about how other writers write. I need to know what's going to happen, but I also change what I thought would happen as I write, because I get to know my characters better. I also get to know more about their jobs, and this was something else that Lord Archer talked about. For example, he said, gesturing at presenter Bill Turnbull, everyone thinks they can do your job, but how many people realise how much reading you have to do before every interview, just to prepare yourself for it? How many have any real idea of what it's like to present a live-on-air magazine-format programme?

I tend to choose jobs for my characters that broadly reflect my view of them – but when I start researching the job, I find out more about why they chose it in the first place. For example, researching the role of a sales manager at a big hotel chain, I was told that the bulk of their salary comes from bonuses on meeting targets, and that they are, therefore, extremely driven and ruthless in the way they operate. It doesn't matter how difficult they make life for others who have to deliver on the event they have sold. Discovering these facts added to my insights about Mannie, and lent colour to a couple of scenes.

Similarly, when I was researching wind farms last year, I spent a day on the hills courtesy of Scottish and Southern and had a great chat with one of their customer service managers. This gave me all sorts of information about what their work is like on a day-to-day basis, what it's like dealing with anti-wind farm lobbyists and building community buy-in. I also got a great idea for a scene.

I need to think up a novel with some really glamorous job now, so that I can persuade some pop star to let me come backstage on a gig, or a movie actor to let me come out on a shoot. Hmmm...

Of course, if you've been there, done that, the background is already known to you. Then you can write a book like Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women (by fellow blogger Mary Smith). Drunk Chickens has just made it through to the finals of the People's Book Prize! So many congratulations to Mary for a well-deserved accolade, and don't forget to vote for it when voting opens sometime in May.

How do you choose jobs for your characters?

20 comments:

  1. I think my characters and their jobs seem to arrive at the same time. In fact they are more integral than names, which we have discussed before, and which I sometimes have to change as the story progresses.

    Because I write mostly comtemporary romance about rural Scotland my characters tend to have the sort of jobs I know about without research. I do like the idea of researching something really glamorous, though!

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    1. Do you ever have to change a name to suit a character's job? What sort of jobs do they do? Not just farming and shepherding, I suppose?

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    2. Jobs i tend to use, as well as farming, are anything to do with animals (e.g. running a boarding kennels!), teaching, nursing and academia. Definitely time I moved out of my comfort zone.

      I can't say I've ever changed a name to suit a job, maybe the 2 have just come together in my mind?

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    3. Will Self believes that the name Tim is a serious handicap in life, apparently. Tim the nightclub bouncer? Somehow, it doesn't seem to work!

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  2. What you say is so right, Jenny...but it isn't always easy too persuade people to take writers seriously. Sure, if you're well know and published that's one thing. I'd be interrested to know if anyone has ever refused a request for a research interview, either because they didn't take you seriously or because they had more important thigns to do?

    I've never researched as thoroughly as you do, but I know in my heart that it's something I really ought to do - especially because I'm sure you're right about the extra depth it goves your characters. And an extra ring of truth to your story as a result.

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  3. Actually, I've always found people are extremely helpful. They're usually fascinated by the fact they're talking to a novelist, even though I do confess I'm still waiting for that big contract...

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  4. I tend to use jobs I know about,but for my WIP I'll have to do a fair amount of research and I'm looking forward to that!

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    1. PIck really interesting ones, Myra!

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  5. Great post, Jenny. Didn't see JA but he's in the recent Writing Magazine which I've still to read. I'm a bit lazy with research and only do what I must, if I don't already know it. I definitely need to think more about characters' jobs in future, when writing contemporary fiction.

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    1. It can be great fun and give real insights into worlds you'd never see otherwise!

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  6. Interesting post, Jenny, and thanks for the plug for Drunk Chickens.
    I did have to do quite a bit of research, despite having worked there, because I'm very bad at noting the names of places: rivers, mountains, villages (which might only cosist of four houses) mountain passes. When it came to the writing I had to keep emailing friends in Afghanistan to check.
    I hadn't considered 'why' characters choose the jobs they do and I can see knowing would add extra depth and will certainly think about that in the future.
    Good luck with following an actor on a shoot - Johnny Depp? If so, can I come with you?

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    1. I'm going to think very carefully about the next book,Mary. I know Katie Fforde does quite a bit of research for her characters (though I'm sure she's never been to Afghanistan).

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  7. Interesting post Jenny. For me, having written plays, it's the getting the jargon word showing you know the world from the inside. An absurd example was given me by a young wannabe film director. "They (the professionals) try to make us feel like nobodys. They talk about 'the sticks' when they mean a camera stand." That sort of thing is why it's important to at least have a long chat with someone in the job you're featuring.

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  8. I agree, Anne. These little things make the work sound authentic (though of course you have to be clear in your writing what it means). Actually, a pompous senior type showing off his/her 'superiority' through jargon would make a great character (and sadly, all too credible!).

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  9. You've certainly given me pause for thought, Jenny. In the main, I write about characters whose jobs I know, but my WIP is taking me into unknown territory. At the moment I'm using my imagination, but I'm sure research will be necessary. Which hightlights the age-old question: research then write? Or write first?

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  10. For me, research first - it can really feed into the book. But then again, if you're inspired, why hold up the words? Either way, make sure you enjoy it!

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  11. Coming in late to the party - busy thinking up characters and names to go with same....:) Yes, honestly. I find the names come first when writing anything historical because the name has to fit the period. For short stories I ask my daughter what names are popular in her son's class so I get those right if a child is in the story. And if the character is my daughter's age I ask what names are in her peer group. But research? Hmmm....a very good friend of mine went to Egypt for research for her just out novel. She is off to the Bahamas soon for research for the next - me thinks I haven't thought this through basing everything in Devon, where I live. Ho hum....
    Great post, jenny.

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  12. Ooh, I love the idea of travelling to places I like as research. Rosie Thomas does it all the time, and Veronica Henry does it - she went on the Orient Express to Venice last year. Can't wait for the novel to come out! We're off to Calcutta shortly - I was born there and want to go back. That's where my first novel was set (though it's never seen the light of day...).

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  13. Claim it all as writing expenses, Jenny....:) I went to a talk Rosie Thomas gave and she went to the North Pole (or it could have been the South Pole) for research which, for me, would be a snow shoe too far!

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  14. She went to Kashmir too. I heard her talk about that. It's off-limits according to the Foreign Office. and it was certainly an adventure. Mind you, I loved The Kashmir Shawl.

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