When I was around 17 years old, I mentioned to my father that I’d like to write a novel. I’m not sure whether I was thinking about a career in writing, or if I was simply interested in getting a book published, but I’d always enjoyed creative writing in my English classes at school, and relished using my imagination to make up stories.
My father’s response was to say: “Don’t be silly. You won’t be able to write a novel. There’s so much research to do.” I remember at the time thinking: “Well I like research, so what’s so difficult about that?” Anyway the end result was that I didn’t consider writing as a career, though ultimately I found one which required me to write every day – sometimes all day.
I don’t know if I would have taken up novel writing earlier if my father hadn’t said that, and I understand his reasons. He had a strange and deep reverence for books; perhaps he just didn’t believe that ‘ordinary’ people had the ability to enter that world.
Anyway, when I wrote Dare to Remember, my first novel, I didn’t think much about research: my story is based somewhere in England, my towns, cities and villages are unnamed, coming from my imagination. My characters, too, are fictional. But my plot did need research – and yes, I did very much enjoy the learning process.
Having decided that my lead character, Lisa, would be suffering from PTSD, I needed to research both the condition and the treatment. I read a number of books and interviewed expert, qualified therapists with experience of treating the disorder. This gave me a body of notes and quotes, and in particular vocabulary and language. Some of these were incorporated into my story – not by any means in their entirety, but just enough to provide authenticity. It was important to know how both therapist and patient would be likely to react.
I found that being an author allowed me access to the experts in a non-threatening way, and, as well as researching online, I met with leading organisations, who were so generous with their time and information. They gave me the knowledge and understanding I needed to write the crucial scenes in a convincing and authentic way.
It’s interesting how you can put many hours into research, only to find that very little detail actually makes it into your story.
And that’s the right way to use your research. As with your characters, it’s your knowledge and understanding behind the scenes that’s important. It gives you the confidence to hint at a deeper expertise, to use the right words, to demonstrate understanding without the need to explain. Which, I suppose, in a way brings us back to ‘show, not tell.’
But that’s another story.