“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public” – Winston Churchill.

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.

Banged by a Brontosaurus… and other untrue romance

roses and a heart

Imagine my surprise when I found myself writing a time-travel romance. I’m not ‘into’ romance as a genre. Fantasy is my thing, with some crime and horror thrown in for light relief. Fantasy is wild and limitless and red and green and purple – a long, long LONG way from my current dreary grey existence.

But I am in the middle of revising Shriven (three books so far and counting), and felt the compelling urge to write something totally different.

One of the reasons I am drawn to fantasy is it is the opposite of my day job. As a junior reporter (a million years ago), I quickly learned to write quickly, clearly and on a deadline. I also learned to write tight. Page leads were 320 words, second leads were 250 words and a string of nibs (news in brief) was four tiny stories of 50-75 words each (usually ‘self-extinguished rubbish fires’). There was no point writing more – the subs would only cut it anyway, and who had the time to wax lyrical when newsdesk were badgering you for the page 5 sidebar?

When I moved onto the sub-editor’s desk I had to get even tighter. You had a space to fill and nothing you could do would make it bigger. I spent the hours cutting all the extraneous ‘thats’ and changing ‘investigation’ into ‘probe’.

And did all that change when news moved away from the constraints of the printed page onto the wonderfully flexible, ultimately bottomless screen? Did it hell. Now our attention spans are so short no-one has time to read a long, descriptive news story. We prefer stuff on the lines of ‘7 weird plants that only grow in Panama (number 5 will blow your mind!)’.

So, after years cutting and slicing and chipping away at words, imagine the corset-cutting relief of letting rip with a fantasy novel. I started writing and couldn’t stop. 10,000 words, 20,000, 50,000 – my books come in at the 150,000 mark – each. Fancy a bit more description of that butterfly – bang it out! Want to write a scene about walking in a straight line when you’re pissed, even though it adds nowt to the plot – go ahead! Have an idea for an unusual character, who does something stupid, just for kicks – bring it on!

But when you are revising and editing, you don’t get to do this. You alter a couple of lines, check a couple of facts, correct a mistake, make some notes. DULL.

So my mind starts to wander, I come up with an idea for a fantastic brain-altering app, and before you know it I have taken this and turned it into a plot.

But it isn’t fantasy, it is more science fictiony, but I can’t commit to a ‘proper’ SF novel, with all the real science and research needed to make it good, because, y’know, Shriven. I need something closer to a news story, something with rules.

Romance has rules.

couple on beach with umbrella

Why have they got an umbrella? Are umbrellas romantic?

  • Take two protaganists (don’t have to be opposite sexes either – get with the 21st Century, grandma).
  • They are attracted to each other, even if they don’t admit it to themselves (that’s why it is called Romance. Durr).
  • But something stands in their way (and not some frustrating misunderstanding that can be explained away in a single sentence).
  • That something is resolved. Our hero and heroine/heroes/heroines come together.

 
With these rules you can plan and plot, and it has to be tight and it has to be convincing but it has to follow the rules. Once you have your plot, it takes some of the pressure off – you ‘just’ write the damn thing.

Or so I thought.

To get me in the groove, and to see how the pros do it, I have read a Kindle-full of romance novels in the past few months. There is a lot more to Romance than I realised.

Firstly, in the straightforward stuff, there are sub-rules.

peach rose on a page

It’s only really romantic if you’re called Anna

  • All the heroines have small hands (why? Dunno, but they do).
  • No-one is a virgin, but they have had a couple of unsuccessful relationships, or have had their heart broken by a cad (male and female).
  • The heroines have classic names, like Elizabeth, Catherine, Victoria. No Alyeesheah or Beyonce here.
  • The heroes have classic names like Alex or Adam, or cowboy names like Flint or Kane.
  • The heroine thinks the hero hates her, because he glares and shouts at her, never realising it is because he is hiding his love/scared for her safety/an arrogant twat.
  • There is usually another man who adores our heroine, but she regards him as a nice big brother, and he accepts this with a rueful smile and a shrug.
  • There is also a Wise Older Woman who rudely dispenses advice about how the couple are destined to be together and how it will All Be Alright In The End. If this happened in real life you’d tell them to mind their own bloody business.

Now, to the less than straightforward stuff. The world of the sub-genre.

I’m not talking doctors and nurses here, or Regency romance. Hoo, nope. There is a mind-trembling number of sub-genres out there. There is a market for romances set in tattoo parlours, featuring Greek shipping tycoons, Vikings, amnesia victims, reincarnation, ghosts, yetis, shapeshifters. The shifter romance section is massive – not just werewolves and stuff but whole towns of motorbike-riding shapeshifters, featuring everything from bears to hedgehogs. (Oh yes, there is an erotic werehedgehog novel out there. Ouch).

Mounted by the Gryphon, Taken by the T-Rex covers

These are real books. You’ve gotta love the prehistoric gold lame and denim

Which brings me to… dinoerotica. There is a series of books about nubile cavegirls in very un-prehistoric lingerie who get it on with dinosaurs. These books are worth writing if only for the titles; Ravished by a Raptor, Taken by the T-Rex, Banged by a Brontosaurus, Going Down on a Diplodocus (I made the last two up). Haven’t read them so I’m not going to comment on their literary merit, but hell, I wish I’d thought of them…

Instead, I came up with a contemporary time-travel romance (title pending. Something to do with dream and time. Dreamtime maybe). Which seems horribly tame next to were-squirrels and raunchy raptors, but I’m going to stick with it. For now.