I came to a realisation yesterday that actually had me laughing out loud in the public library. I do this quite a bit; I suspect the staff think I’m a little strange. I spend quite a lot of time in there reading war time articles in the British Newspaper Archives for free (I’d have to pay from my home computer).
The realisation wasn’t sudden; it’s been creeping up on me for a little while. Simply, I’m writing a book in an era I know very little about. I knew this when I decided to do it, back in July 2014, and I knew I had to conduct some research before embarking on the writing in order to help me plan and for the writing to have a certain amount of authenticity.
Now, I’ve researched before. I have 3 degrees, and have written 2 policy based dissertations as well as numerous research papers throughout my academic career. I undertook policy based research for previous jobs when writing briefing papers. I can structure my bibliographies within the Harvard system like a lecturer’s dream. I thought I knew how to research.
So I threw myself into it with gusto, ably abetted by my library which has an admirable stock of World War 1 stock and a decent local history section. Great, we’re off to a flying start.
Here’s the kicker: 10 months down the line I can see I went about this all wrong. I failed to do that most basic of academic tenants – I didn’t set any research parameters. No guidelines to help me narrow down the field or structure my research notes. Frankly, this bull broke the whole bloody china shop.
In my defence, I was at that time unsure what I was going to be writing. I had 4 main characters, a time, a place and an ending. That’s actually not a bad place to start. I should have realised early on that my research interests in World War 1 are social, not military. There is to be sure a small amount of military included, but it’s at a very specific time and place. They are then refined by social class and occupation, plus a fascination about the lives that my grandmothers would have both lived as miner’s wives just after the Great War. Instead I waded through ponderous textbooks of military strategy, positions, five steps forward, five steps back. I had hideous nightmares about the number of men killed in just one day on the Somme. I looked at incomprehensible maps of no man’s land and struggled to comprehend a war that destroyed so many for so few yards of soil.
This is all useful in its own way but I got lost in it and forgot that I am actually writing a character driven study. I found the works I related to most were diaries and collections of memories from the ordinary soldiers. I handled letters to and from soldiers local to me in museums, plus shell casings, barbed wire – artefacts from the front. These all spoke to me in a way the dry military research hasn’t. I read social history books that were a little niche – a history of war posters in the UK (remarkably fascinating and a whole £1 on Kindle at the time), a book of poetry written by women of the time, the social history of clothing during the period, a book on shell shock and the rudimentary treatments being developed for what we would now call PTSD. These have been putting flesh on the bones, and gradually my research has begin to move in a direction that makes sense to the novel I wish to write.
It’s taken me 10 months to reach this stage, and I acknowledge I should have been far more ruthless at the start of this writing journey. I’m putting pen to paper and testing out scenes (my scene ‘pot’ is filling up nicely). The research has undoubtedly helped me fill those blank white cards with ideas and a rudimentary novel structure. I’m reaching the stage where I know what gaps exist in my knowledge to complete this project to the best of my ability – which it deserves. And I’ve never done anything like this before, so I genuinely am learning on the job.
Research parameters. I know from experience these can change, expand as a project develops. I should have applied them much, much sooner but my academic brain flew out the window. I was in a pretty emotional place when I embarked on this novel; hopefully now I’m in a far more rational spot to conclude it over the next 12 months. But remind me if I ever again set out to write a historical literary novel from scratch to spend some concerted time and effort on defining those bloody parameters. Much time, headspace and money may be saved in the process!