A lighthouse in a storm

There’s so much information available nowadays it can feel like standing in a deluge and trying to catch one drop of rain. Even in my lifetime – and I’m not very old – this has changed. In my schooldays, if you wanted to find something out, you had to look it up in the encyclopaedia, or if you were very swanky, on the Encarta interactive CD-Rom. It was interactive, guys! We’d never seen the like of it in my rural primary school!

Wanted: one lighthouse, preferably weird
Wanted: one lighthouse, preferably weird

But now it’s frighteningly easy to lose months of writing time in a tenuous activity called ‘the research stage’. I’ve written at length about this before so I won’t go into all my thoughts on research, but to summarise:

  • you need to do less than you think
  • even for crime writing
  • essentially it’s fine to just make things up
  • writing isn’t homework, and no one will check if you’re right about everything
  • OK some people will check but who cares about them really?? Why do they care so much? Why do they have so much time on their hands?
  • stop researching and just write your damn book already

I am a well-documented research shirker, BUT this is not to say I don’t enjoy a good research stage, when it’s on my own terms, and I can just play around with ideas and fascinating facts. Usually I’ll get obsessed with several topics and read around them. For my next next Paula book (A Savage Hunger), it was:

  • eating disorders
  • holy relics
  • hunger strikes

An uplifting set of topics, I’m sure you will agree, which led to me buying books such as ‘Hunger Strike – the anorexic’s struggle as a metaphor for our age’ and ‘Three Famines- a history’. Confession – I often don’t read these books. I sort of feel that the act of ordering, often dusty out-of-print editions, will make the knowledge seep into my brain. I’m 74% convinced this is true. Did you know that people believed the bodies of certain saints didn’t rot after death? Did you know some of the hunger strikers lived for months? And did you know you can buy your own flagellation equipment online and it’s not even for S&M?? ( http://www.cilice.co.uk; thank me later)

For Paula book 5, which I plan to start on 1 November, because I love arbitrary deadlines, it will be:

  • lighthouses (hence the title)
  • mass hallucinations/poisonings
  • cults
  • weird islands
Graphs can be interesting too
Graphs can be interesting too

I firmly believe everyone should write a weird island book. I might even go to an island off Ireland or Scotland to soak up the atmosphere. Anyone know of a lighthouse I could stay in? Spurious research trips are also part of the fun of being a writer. I say spurious because I don’t believe you really need to go to a place to write about it. Do go, by all means, if you have time and money, but don’t think this substitutes for having a great story. Neither do all those books you’ve been ordering (I saw you). Your story is the lighthouse in the storm – cling to it through the raging torrents of information, and it will see you safe to shore.

Research can be fun, in this early stage before you’ve started the book, and before the perfect idea of it gets ruined by the actual writing. So enjoy. Just know when to cut it short and plough on. And do read up on mass poisonings – lead! ergot!- as it is totally fascinating. Did you know worldwide violence levels dipped dramatically after lead was taken out of petrol, for example (see pic)? Did you know there’s a type of shellfish poisoning that causes mass short-term amnesia? I will be a font of information on this and other trivia for the next year or so. Again, you’re very welcome.

One Comment Add yours

  1. M. L. Kappa says:

    Great post! When I was at Uni – long before the Internet etc – we firmly believed that if you checked out a pile of books from the library, left them on your desk a couple of days, and returned them, you had absorbed their contents BY OSMOSIS…

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