Research – the writer’s cul-de-sac

Styles For All Figures - 1920's underwear

I’ve written a time travel novel called The Clock Box, and enjoyed it so much I am half way through writing another one. The first one is set in 1926, the second in 1940. The reasons for this are plot-dictated, rather than any particular love of – or in-depth knowledge about – these eras. Even so, I reckoned I had read enough Agatha Christie to be able to blag my way through 1926 and seen enough war films to pull off 1940.

Not so. Name me a cinema you would expect to find in a small southern town in 1940. There are loads – Odeon, Gaumont, Rex. But you have to be careful. This is 1940, not 1946, so you won’t find an Essoldo – they came later. And don’t opt for a Union cinema either – they were taken over in 1937.

Essoldo cinema

An Essoldo cinema – the name was an amalgam of the names of the owner (Solomon), his wife (Esther) and daughter (Dorothy). This is where too much research takes you

While we’re on the subject – what kind of underwear did people wear in 1926? Not what was in the fashion magazines, but what did people actually wear? Was it all buttons and ribbons or were there hooks and eyes? When did elastic become widespread? Did fast young gels wear the same kind of pants as respectable housekeepers? (I have been writing sex scenes. Fastenings matter).

Woman wearing 1920s underwear

Can you imagine trying to get this stuff on? Can you imagine someone else trying to take it all off?


These are the cul-de-sacs research sends you down.

My day job is a sub-editor. This is a heavy weight I happily cast off when I dive into the fiction pool, but, like that nasty slimy seaweed that wraps around your legs, it keeps reappearing and dragging me under.

A favourite author of mine once said that while re-reading one of his earlier works he discovered that he had described the sun setting twice, about three hours apart, on one momentous day. He hadn’t noticed, and neither had his editor.

I would have done.

At a talk with crime writer Mark Billingham in Hull recently, he said a reader once contacted him to point out that a particular set of traffic lights featured in one of his books (Oxford I think…) had since been altered and it was now impossible to turn right there, as one of his characters had done. ‘You may wish to amend this for the next edition’ the reader said. Billingham laughed it off; at the end of the day, you can only do so much research, he said. You just have to go with the author, or the amendments will never end.

I would have amended it.

I spent a pointless afternoon trying to find out what food was served in hospitals during the war. They would be on rations, of course, but surely they would get extra portions? Of what exactly? I read loads of fascinating first hand accounts from nurses and patients, but apart from one fella saying he preferred it in hospital as they got better food, I drew a blank. Ended up culling it from a 1946 report of recommended menus from a charity that inspected hospitals (it later became the King’s Fund, and was founded in 1898, becoming a think-tank after the NHS was set up).

Oh, and did you know the American army officer’s summer uniform had a leather belt until 1941? After that it became a sort of hessian affair. And that Daimler produced a massive 7.1 litre car in 1926 that apparently was so quiet you could only hear the engine when the bonnet was open. And while I know from studying zoomed in pictures of these cars that they definitely had glove compartments, I can’t find out whether you could lock them from the outside.

Advert for a 1926 Daimler Double 6

A late 20s Daimler. Beautiful – but does it lock from the outside?

This is the stuff I pick up while researching and I have no idea if it is any use. I just know it eats into the precious time I have carved out for actually writing, and I invariably cut it short without finding out exactly what I need to know.

It isn’t just researching facts either. Language can make or break a book’s credibility. A crime novel set in the 1960s I read a few years ago lost me totally when one of the characters was asked how they were. “I’m good, thanks,” they replied. NO-ONE said ‘good’ like this in the sixties. It is a 21st century expression. They said ‘fine’ or ‘fab’ or ‘gear’.

Another one –  ‘balls-up’ sounds modernish, lewd, and probably American, so I was searching for a phrase like it that would have been used in 1940s England. Turns out balls-up is the perfect phrase. It came into widespread use in the First World War and while its origin isn’t clear – it may be navel thing – it has nowt to do with testicles. Who knew? Well, me, now.

I research too much and for too long. Part is procrastination, I know. Part is fear of getting it wrong and someone smugly pointing out to me that ladies didn’t wear elasticated suspender belts in June 1926 because they weren’t invented until July. Part is the journalist’s need to get it right. But the biggest part of it is my need to get inside the characters – to think, talk, eat and feel the way they feel, to see what they see when they walk down the street.

I think I’ll have to accept I need a real time travel machine for that.

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5 thoughts on “Research – the writer’s cul-de-sac

  1. Another fascinating piece. I admire the fact that you dig deep, and you care. If you don’t, who is going to care about your work? One small point: I’d argue that no-one actually said ‘gear’ except John Lennon and a few posturing cronies, and then only for a few weeks or so in spring/summer 1963 (I looked this one up, honest!) We’ve discussed this before but you give this word much more airplay than it deserves…Don’t think I don’t notice! The fact that this bothers me reveals me as a fellow pedant. Looking forward to Clock Box though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jo Rodgers says:

      You know I’m going to have to go and research that now, don’t you…?
      PS: Hoping to post an extract from Clock Box on here in a few days, will welcome your comments.

      Like

  2. taliena says:

    Haha! This did make me giggle, particularly the concern over elasticated suspender belts.

    Liked by 1 person

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