Tuesday, 13 September 2016

More Than Research

by Rosemary Johnson

Research for a novel can seem never ending.  Do any of us ever believe we’ve done enough?  For instance, whereas writers should always visit locations, for historical novelists, this is not enough, because they need to envisage how places would look in a particular year and month.  Last Saturday, I passed The Jungle in Calais and observed the razor wire either side of the motorway; hopefully, these will not be around for future historical novelists to observe.  

Trying to edit my own historical novel, I realise, after listening to Sarah Hull’s podcasts on Writers Essentials, that I need to refine how my characters stood/sat/spoke/walked… in fact, how they did everything.  Sarah suggested asking a hundred questions of each major character, so I wrote my survey and my characters answered it, without stopping to think too much – which I was pleased about - and added a few bits of useful detail.  But the character detail was still not as drilled down as I would like.  In ‘Home to Cedar Branch’ by Brenda Bevan Remmes, I read about how Anna, an elderly Quaker, ‘a barrel of a woman … balanced herself by putting a hand on the end of each pew’ at her Meeting House.  What a picture!  How was I to make my characters come alive like this?  Only one thing is available to me: everyday life.

I have to confess that the idea above and the niggle ‘I really must get on with my blog post’ came into my mind simultaneously last Saturday morning, as I sat on the bus ready to set off on (my former college’s) Staff Association outing to Ostend.  I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, certainly not prototypes for characters in my novel, set in Poland in the 1980s.  It was an exercise.  Maybe my observations would be useful in other writing, I hoped. 

What struck me first was the ordinariness and decency of my travel companions, not the stuff of many modern novels, where meanness, wantonness, obsession, and (increasingly) psychiatric problems are valued as more interesting.  I listened to the twenty something woman in front of us, wearing a spotty scarf tied in a bow at the top of her head, talking about cats, hedgehogs and the three bin bags of cuddly toys in her attic, including one called Patty Platypus.  Spotty Scarf played games on her phone, providing a running commentary, with remarks like ‘I'm catching all my eggs’ in a strident voice which carried across the bus.  Her women friends swivelled around in their seats to chat, leaning against the chair backs in front of them, like teenagers on a school trip.  Her boyfriend, staring into nothingness, occasionally slid his arm around her shoulder and pecked her cheek.  She hardly noticed.  As we boarded our ferry, ‘The Pride of Britain’ (How Brexit!), with the stunning white cliffs of Dover as our backdrop, Spotty Scarf and her friends discussed calories in packets of crisps.  A womag story here, perhaps?  At least I’ve hammered the ‘young man from accounts’ stereotype who appears far too often in all fiction.

Later, I watched her doze, her head resting against her scarf pressed against the coach window.  Ah, Marya, main character in my novel, has, on one occasion, to sleep on a train.  Other passengers sleep with their heads tilting upwards, leaning into their headrests, their mouths falling agape, the sinews of their necks accentuated like strings.  The boyfriend, however, dropped his chin into his chest, jolting it upright every few minutes.  On the way on the ferry, several thick set construction lecturers slump on to café tables, cradling their heads inside a circle formed by their curved arms.  In my novel, carpenters, welders and crane-drivers have to sleep anywhere they can, sometimes on tables.

I leave you with Ecclesiastes 7:25.  So I turned my mind to understand, to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things and to understand the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly.

(Copyright of all images is with the author, Rosemary Johnson.)

As well as The Novel, Rosemary Johnson writes short stories, which she subs where she can, sometimes to competitions.  She has had work published on ‘The Copperfield Review’, ‘Circa’, ‘Mslexia’, ‘Every Day Fiction’ and ‘A Long Short Story’.  As ACW Competitions Manager, Rosemary reminds you of The News Poetry Competition.


  1. Wonderful. Nothing like observation!

  2. Some great observations, yes - the descriptions of the people sleeping are spot on!