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Four Things I’ve Learned About Research

Book 3 is finished, but it's been a big learning curve for Jessica. She shares four things she's learned about the research process


Research. Absolutely essential for a writer. It goes hand in glove for so many genres. Historical writers, for example, have to undertake research on pretty much every aspect of their books to ensure historical accuracy: dialogue, food, clothing, social norms, housing, economic environment, weather and so on. Crime writers need to research police procedures and the law, to name just two areas, to ensure their writing is true to life.

As a writer of romantic comedy set in the present day in a fictional town with ‘normal characters’ who I can relate to (i.e. not ones who live a millionaires lifestyle), I didn’t think I’d have to do much research for any of my books. Yippee! That meant I could just get on with my favourite part: the actual writing.

Or so I thought. 

The word count started to build on my debut novel, ‘Searching for Steven’ and I realised that I couldn’t avoid research completely. There were a few questions I had to ask Google, such as:

  • What time will the sun set in October?
  • How high will a hot air balloon rise?
  • Does Manchester University offer a Business Studies degree?

And the slightly macabre:

  • How long can a dead body remain undiscovered before neighbours can smell it?

All pretty straightforward details. All easy to find. Okay, so the dead body one took me a bit longer and, feeling paranoid that the police were about to knock on my door and ask me who I was planning to bump off, I called on a friend whose partner works for the police and asked for his guidance instead!

Then came book 3. Big learning curve. Huge learning curve!

Book 3, ‘Dreaming about Daran’ is Clare’s story and it’s presented me with some issues that ‘Getting Over Gary’ and ‘Searching for Steven’ didn’t:

  1. Clare is Irish. I’m not. I was never massively concerned about representing Clare’s Irish dialogue because she’s lived in the UK for more than half her life so has as many English-isms as she does Irish-isms. But there are other Irish characters in the book and finding their pattern of speech and making sure it was realistic was a challenge that I thought I’d overcome. After all, I shared a house for two years with someone from Cork and I’ve read books by Irish writers set in Ireland so I had a good idea of what was authentic and what wasn’t. Or so I thought…
  2. Clare’s from Cork. I’ve never been there. But that’s fine, because I have my friend Google and could easily track down the names and locations of a park/hospital/hotel by the river. At one point, Clare travels into County Wicklow. I have no idea what Wicklow is like, having never been there before, but my friend Google gave me a description of typical communities and lots of photos. Sorted
  3. Clare was brought up a Catholic. I was brought up a Methodist. I know the very basics about the Catholic faith, but that’s about it. My friend Google was on hand to educate me, though. Which is all well and good for the issues you think of researching. But what about the issues you never thought to question? The things you assume are common in all Christian-based faiths and in all churches…

With the edits from my publisher complete, the MS went away for proofreading and I congratulated myself on my third novel being put to bed. Then I picked up an email from my publisher late on Monday evening asking me if I could have a look over the proofreader’s comments. Normally these would be to do with typos and any changes needed to keep in with house style. My publisher would therefore deal with them without my involvement. However, by sheer coincidence the proofreader they’d used was Irish and she’d spotted lots of errors and my publisher wanted my take on which I wanted to change. Eek! I’m going to highlight two themes:

Dialogue & Words – On the whole, my dialogue was pretty realistic although I’d fallen into the ‘Hollywood interpretation’ of how Irish people speak on a couple of occasions and she was able to switch around or replace a couple of words in the sentence to correct it. However, the majority of the dialogue changes were around elements I’d never even thought to question. Mate, grandma, ill/poorly, lager and lounge when referring to the main room at home are not terms commonly used in Ireland so they needed to became friend, granny, sick, beer and living room respectively. Apparently a lounge is a hotel bar. It is in England too but it’s also used interchangeably with living room, sitting room and front room in a domestic setting! Crikey! Who knew? Clearly not me! I’d never in a month of Sundays thought to have checked any of that! There were also comments about swear words/curses. Clare has two pet words: arse and bollocks. However, these aren’t typical Irish curses and my proofreader wondered if I’d picked up ‘arse’ from Father Jack in the brilliant Father Ted series. Actually, no. They’re words that make me giggle and they are very Clare. They’re also English-isms that I feel she’d have developed. So I kept them in. However, I did use a couple of wonderful alternatives that my proofreader flagged up like gobshite! 

Churches – Oh dear! It all went a bit horribly wrong here. Apparently Irish Catholic schoolchildren don’t attend Sunday School or Bible Studies (oops!) Independent reading of the Bible isn’t necessarily encouraged (oops!) The word ‘service’ isn’t used, even when describing a wedding. It’s all Mass e.g. wedding Mass, funeral Mass. And there isn’t a pulpit with steps and a handrail. Oh my goodness, had I got anything right?

There were loads more corrections, but I don’t want to mention them because they’re spoilers to things that happen in the book. Suffice to say, I was absolutely mortified to have got so much so wrong. The thing was, I’d done WAY more research than for the other two books. There’s a death in Daran and I’d looked into how long would pass between the death and the wake. I researched into how long the wake would last, and what would happen during it. Mind you, I still had that corrected by my proofreader who suggested I knock two days out of the process I’d described! I compromised at dropping one day and including an explanation as a key part of the story wouldn’t have worked if I’d knocked out two. Damn inaccurate piece of research!

The changes are now all complete and an Irishly-accurate (that should be a word!) version of Daran is being typeset right now. I’m so grateful to my proofreader for her valuable feedback. Without her, I could have been heading for several 1-star review with comments about the inaccuracies. (I could still be heading for several 1-star reviews but hopefully readers will love the story and accept any errors I’ve inadvertently left in!)

On top of all of this Irish/Catholic research, I’d also had medical research to do but I have a wonderful cousin, Lisa, who is a nurse and she helped me out massively with advice/guidance on medical complaints and hospital protocols. I screwed up there too. I gave a 17 year old an infection associated with someone 40-plus and confess I absolutely didn’t research that! Thank you, Lisa xx (and also Liz who’d also pointed out my error here!)

So what have I learned about this process?

  1. Don’t write books about different countries/religions! Ha ha! I’m being flippant here but it has certainly been a learning for me
  2. There are obvious things you’ll need to research about different countries/religions/cultures and so on. However, don’t assume that what might appear as minor things are the same. If possible, find someone who is from that country/religion/culture who can check out your MS and comment on the accuracy (or many inaccuracies as in my case)
  3. Don’t rely on just one source of information when you research something. There were two vital pieces of research I’d undertaken before my MS went to my publisher and both turned out not to be fully accurate. Find a couple of sources or perhaps something more reliable than a blog (which might have been my downfall on one of those pieces of research)
  4. I’m a bit pants … ok, make that a LOT pants … at research. Which is pretty ironic given that my day job is tutoring a professional qualification where research is essential. To be fair, in this whole learning experience, it’s not been that I haven’t researched. It’s been more that I haven’t questioned the accuracy of the research I’ve undertaken and I haven’t thought to research areas that clearly needed research

It’s been a hard learning curve but one I’ve been very fortunate to go through at the pre-release stage. I do confess to being a little nervous about having to undertake detailed research for future books. Therefore, my next book will be about an overweight romantic comedy writer who isn’t very good at research … ;-)

Enjoy the rest of July!

Jessica xx

 

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