My ‘random article’ from Wikipedia this week was a short article about HMS Eastbourne. At first I wondered what on earth I was going to write about a Type 12 anti-submarine frigate of the UK’s Royal Navy!
When I discovered that this ship was used to train apprentices in the operation of her engines and machinery, and then to train officers from the RN Engineering College, I immediately thought of my grandson. He started university in Bristol last September and also applied to and was accepted by the University Royal Naval Unit, which is a training unit providing an insight into naval life for undergraduates.
When he came home at Christmas, my ‘midshipman’ grandson was full of all the activities he had done with the unit. He also amazed us by being able to name all kinds of Royal Navy ships – frigates, destroyers, PT boats (etc!). He was full of enthusiasm for what is currently his ‘hobby’. Although he hasn’t yet made any commitment to sign up for the Royal Navy, his interest has encouraged him to find out as much as he can about it.
So what has this to do with writing? It occurs to me that we should be just as enthusiastic when researching for our own novels. If it becomes a chore, then we are doing are readers a disservice because our lack of interest in the subject will show, and if we skimp on the research, we’ll probably make countless errors.
I write contemporary novels, but still have to do a lot of research. Maybe not as much as those authors who write historical novels, but there’s still a need for research.
‘His Leading Lady’ had a musical theatre setting. I was involved in the amateur musical theatre for many years, and had been backstage at a couple of professional theatres, but there was still a lot I needed to find out about the professional theatre. After I’d finished the first draft, I watched a programme on TV in which a TV presenter challenged himself to appear in a West End Musical. You can imagine my relief when I discovered most of my details about rehearsals were fairly accurate!
My next novel, ‘Fragrance of Violets’ was set in the English Lake District. Not too difficult for me, as it’s an area I know well. However, one of the characters was a journalist who was interested in renewable energy resources, so that needed a lot of research.
An even bigger challenge was my next hero, who was a volcano expert, in ‘Changing the Future’. What did I know about volcanoes? Very little, apart from the fact that they occasionally erupt. I probably didn’t use 99% of the research I did, but it was necessary in order for the hero to refer accurately to volcanic activity. I became so interested in the subject that was excited when I found there was to be a series on TV about volcanoes, and I watched avidly, making notes all the time. When one of the scientists made a statement that was remarkably similar to something I had my hero saying, I experienced one of those ‘Yessss’ moments. Who knew I could get so excited about volcanoes?
‘Her Only Option’, set in Egypt, was slightly different, as I did a lot of my research while on the Nile Cruise which actually inspired the story. On my return home, I still had to find out more about the tombs of the Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings (and learnt more about them than I’d ever known before, even though I’m an historian by professions).
The point I’m trying to make, in a roundabout way, is that we need to be enthusiastic about the background research we do for our novels, in the same way that my grandson is bubbling over with enthusiasm for the Royal Navy.