Showing posts with label research. Show all posts
Showing posts with label research. Show all posts

Monday, 15 February 2021

Eureka! A WIP breakthrough via creative research - by Rowena House

For a year now, for family and Covid reasons, the castles of my story have been out of reach. So have the hills and the streets where my characters walked in real life. It’s been tough trying to write their story without the inspirational, tactile, lived experience of place.

Research and planning have, to a degree, filled the gap, alongside repetitive drafting of potential opening scenes. Overall, though, the process has been frustrating.

But as they say, nothing in writing is wasted.

At four o’clock on Sunday morning, Valentine’s Day, my subconscious decided to prove the point by revealing a 3D image of story: a way to perceive and to manage the relationship between historical research, structural planning and a dual narrative.

Hurrah! The dual narrative especially has been a major stumbling block.

For once, it’s clear where this eureka moment came from: the week I’d spent drafting this blog about creative research, thinking deeply but tangentially about the story.

The subject of research always seems to be a bit of a Pandora’s Jar (to borrow a phrase from Natalie Haynes). In historical fiction, research has a reputation as a time-suck, an opportunity to procrastinate when you should be getting down to the serious bum-on-seat business of storytelling.

The trick, I decided, after researching research, is to set its creative limits.


Let me quote something on the subject from Robert McKee’s Story. It echoes advice about the freedom on knowing your limitations which I first heard from David Almond who got it in turn from Flannery O’Connor. Here’s McKee:

 “Limitation is vital. The first step toward a well-told story is to create a small, knowable world ... By the time you finish the last draft, you must possess a commanding knowledge of your setting in such depth and detail that no one could raise a question about your world—from the eating habits of your characters to the weather in September—that you couldn’t answer instantly.”

You can find more about his thoughts on this on pages 71-76 of Story (in my 1997 edition, at least).

Accepting this passage as a starting point, the purpose of creative research is, therefore, to build a profound knowledge of a tight, intimate story world: “a limited world and a restricted cast offer the possibility of knowledge in depth and breadth.” That’s McKee again.

To win the war on cliché takes research, he says, and “the time and effort to acquire knowledge”. So let’s call this Research of Knowledge.

Research of Knowledge clearly applies to the ‘external’ content of a story: its historical or contemporary socio-economic and cultural contexts. It also relates to exploration of the themes and truths the story is aiming to convey: the psychology of its characters, and the realism that makes a work of literature authentic and artistically true.

For McKee, Research of Knowledge also includes close examination of received life experiences, the emotionally and psychologically important events that feed our creativity; he calls that research of memory and research of imagination.

For me, Research of Knowledge also encompasses the craft of storytelling. I’m not sure if McKee applies it this way as I’ve not read Story in full for several years, but logically I think he must. Studying Story, and other craft books like it, is, after all, research.

Research of Knowledge is distinct from the pursuit of facts, not least because facts are increasingly problematic in an age of Trumpian alternative facts, online anti-vaxx conspiracies and suppression of Freedom of Information requests.

Sure, we can all accept that at sea level, water boils at 100 degrees centigrade. But how many people died during atrocities committed by European empires? Even asking the question is political.

As the Irish President Michael Higgins put it this week in an article about the centenary of the partition of Ireland, published in Britain in The Guardian:

In my work on commemoration, memory, forgetting and forgiving I have sought to establish a discourse characterised by what the Irish philosopher Richard Kearney calls ‘a hospitality of narratives’, acknowledging that different, informed perspectives on the same events can and do exist. The acceptance of this fact can release us from the pressure of finding, or subscribing to, a singular unifying narrative of the past.”

In other words, searching for a single, simplistic set of facts about us, the human race, and the fate of our planet, risks tipping us into worlds of conflicting, subjective realities. 

A search for facts necessarily becomes a search for truth, which is whole different ballgame, one that seems to me to lie at the heart of many debates in our writing community: debates about Own Voices, diversity, and the economics of who gets to write what and how it’s published, to name but a few.

Researching knowledge, therefore, must be sensitive and careful. It can’t just ask, what do we know about X? It must also ask, how do we know it, and can we trust that source?

Which makes creative research a form of critical thinking.

Critical thinking about sources was a cornerstone of research in my former life as a journalist and is embedded in my present genre of historical fiction, too. A historiographer asks: who wrote this account, with what purpose, and whose voices were silenced in the telling? The imagination is then set to work filling knowledge gaps.

But critical thinking seems to me to be a good starting point for any genre. And life in general. Anyhow...

In terms of character building, creative research into our knowledge about psychology is a smorgasbord of ideas whatever the genre. Personally I’m addicted to articles in the New Scientist about psychotherapy, neuroscience, the study of belief systems, and the impacts of trauma on the mind.

In craft terms, creative research into story structure is a sure-fire way to avoid tired formulae and to discover workable new forms. (Hat tip to Linda Aronson again.) Star Wars is nigh on half a century old! High time, imho, to nick the best bits of the Hero’s Journey and move on.


I could go on about researching voice, language, rhythm, lexicons for individual characters, like operatic leitmotifs. But I’ll resist.

There is, however, one area of creative research which I do think it’s worth reflecting on. For this post, let’s call it Research of Self.

It’s something I think a lot of us do, in writing journals or quiet corners of our heads. It’s over and above the sort of research of memory and research of imagination that McKee talks about.

On the MA in writing for young people at Bath Spa we were encouraged to do it via critical analyses of our course WIPs, a part of our creative practice I didn’t really get it at the time, being more focussed on the product of imagination – the story – than the process of writing it. 


I now recognise that was my loss: a lesson taught by a collection of unfinished Books Two, still-born stories lost at different stages of gestation, now bottled in formaldehyde and sitting on a high shelf. Why didn’t you finish us, they seem to ask.

Research of Self might help me to answer them.

This form of research considers both how we write (our process) and why we write: our motivations and intentions.

For The Goose Road, for example, I now know that sheer lust to be published played a big part in getting me to The End. A supportive, enabling environment was also essential (big shout out to friend from the MAWYP, GEA, SCBWI and BookBound as always). This environment is something I’m trying to emulate via writing friendships, these blogs and a PhD.

The subject of World War I was another factor that kept me going with The Goose Road. I’d shied away from this horrific part of human history as a young adult, at school and at university. Now I had the maturity to face it, and – with help – the skill to recreate it for a new generation. That made the five years from inception to publication worthwhile. It also made shouting about it online feel okay, not arrogant or naff. 


I’ve yet to pinpoint the deep, visceral appeal of the current WIP. Its charm is long-standing – the basic idea is perhaps ten years old – but do I have to write this story? I hope so.

Which leads to intention, the other big topic for Research of Self.

What is the underlying driver behind writing this story and not another? What intuitive, subconscious influences are at work? Is there a better story hidden under the surface of the story I think that I’m telling?

Readers of earlier blogs in this series about the WIP will recognise Hisham Matar’s voice in that last paragraph.

As mentioned here last month, research for the current WIP isn’t a discreet phase of the process. All stages go hand in hand, feeding off each other and into each other: planning, drafting, editing, research.

Research in all its forms will be as broad and as deep as it needs to be, and revisited as often as necessary. This, happily, avoids the question: at what point do you stop researching and let the story flow? Lord knows if it will work, but it’s a plan. And I haven’t got another one.

Please do let me know your thoughts on research and on writing in general. They’ll be super welcome as always. Talking about stories with other writers is the best research of all.


Twitter: @HouseRowena

Facebook: Rowena House Author




Saturday, 12 September 2020

An Unusual Problem - Inspiration by Vanessa Harbour


I have previously written about the importance of food in children’s fiction in this blog. It can add such depth and bring life to a narrative, giving the reader more clues about the characters and how they live.


When writing about food I have rather an unusual problem. I haven’t eaten properly since 2000 when my body reacted badly to surgery I had for a stomach issue. This meant it’s really difficult for me to swallow food. Those that know me are aware that I syringe special nutrition-based feed through a tube straight into my stomach. It is not an issue because it allows me to lead a relatively normal life and I’ve got very used to it now. However, this means I rarely cook food now and don’t really know the joy of enjoying a meal anymore. Unbelievably, can prove quite a stumbling block when trying to write about food.

My solution? I read recipe books and watch food programmes on TV. The presenters whether chefs or cooks are always passionate consequently their language is often rich and evocative. Watching the likes of James Martin (my daughter used to work for him) or Mary Berry, as she wanders around Paris waxing lyrical about food, or Nadiyah Hussain describing her joy in food, to name just a few, is really inspirational. It means I am not using the same food over and over again and can challenge my characters to eat diverse things. I loved food and was a real foodie before the op, so this is also escapism for me too, but I do like to introduce at least two rich food scenes in a manuscript.

I confess I do this for settings too! Great to watch house programmes. I also though tend to follow accounts on Instagram that are doing up houses as the ‘before’  pictures can be particularly inspirational. The other thing is to look at estate agents websites. I did this recently for a manuscript that was set in a certain place and it gave me a good sense of what sort of houses were in the area and what they might look like inside. The pictures can stimulate your imagination as you create the houses where your characters might live or visit.

I know people will say that Pinterest is great for this, which it is, but I find I just end up down a rabbit hole trying to find what I want. It is not something I use so much these days.


I apologise this post is short and sweet, but life is a bit full-on as I prepare to start lecturing again. I hope you enjoy finding inspiration for your food and settings in the meantime.


Dr Vanessa Harbour


Thursday, 5 December 2019

Learning from the other arts - Alex English

I'm a sucker for writing books and like many other ABBA bloggers (Rowena springs to mind!) I have shelves full of guides. Recently, I've tried looking further afield to other art forms to see what I can learn and whether I can apply it to writing. Here's what I've found:

Photo by Jake Hills on Unsplash


There are multitudes of screenwriting books that many novelists use already. Screenwriters are by necessity very strong on structure due to the huge budgets and fixed time-constraints of the screen. In this sense, a screenplay is very similar to a picture book. You can't overrun an episode of EastEnders by ten minutes any more than you can stretch out a picture book story to 17 spreads.

Key takeaways: read about screenwriting if you want to get your head around plot and structure

Recommended reads: Story by Robert McKee, Into the Woods by John Yorke, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder (just to get you started, there are many, many more).

Photo by Nick Karvounis on Unsplash


I somehow stumbled upon reading Pat Pattison's songwriting tips, and I've found them very helpful for writing rhyming picture books. While poetry books often focus on blank verse, songwriting looks more closely at rhyme and rhythm, which is just what's needed for a picture book. I've never really learned how to write in rhyme, and most picture book writing guides don't cover it thoroughly.

Key takeaways: Chapter 4 has a guide to building a 'worksheet' – in brief a sort of brainstorm-on-paper of ideas and rhymes associated with the themes of the song you are writing. I tend to write my story in prose before turning it into rhyme, and now I'm going to try including a rhyme worksheet as a middle step in my process.

Recommended reads: Writing Better Lyrics by Pat Pattison

Photo by Doug Maloney on Unsplash
I recently took a cartooning course with Neil Kerber, which has been great fun to practise with the kids. Drawing was supposed to be a hobby, but it's actually proved incredibly handy to be able to sketch characters and props for my work in progress. It also saves hours searching around Pinterest for that elusive image in my head.

Key takeaways: Keep it loose. Draw and see what comes out. It doesn't have to be perfect. Have fun!

Recommended reads: Comics: Easy as ABC! by Ivan Brunetti

Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash


I know nothing about dance, but I recently read The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp, an acclaimed choreographer. She talks about her creative process, how she researches a dance piece (fascinating!) and how she actively develops her career. She talks about the importance of teaching/mentoring others to solidify your own knowledge. What would you teach yourself six months ago?

Key takeaways: There's a lot in this book, but I love the way Tharp uses a big box to gather her project material. I've started keeping a dedicated notebook for each project (previously I had a trillion notebooks with notes from different things scattered throughout), but a file box might work even better to collate random scraps of information and objects related to a book.

Recommended reads: The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp   

Photo by Mika Korhonen on Unsplash

Fashion design

On a whim, I borrowed a book about fashion design research and found it a surprisingly enlightening read. Nobody really tells you how to get ideas for a novel, but fashion designers at college have to document a proper research process and show how their ideas came about.

Key takeaways: "Fashion doesn't come from fashion" (i.e. don't take your inspiration from the catwalk). Books don't (just) come from books either. It's easy to feel you have to keep completely up-to-date with reading every new book release, but as long as you have a feel for what a current book is, it can be more useful to look more widely and take creative inspiration from elsewhere, art galleries, museums and maybe even real life!

Recommended reads: Fashion Design Research by Ezinma Mbonu

How about you? Have you ever taken inspiration for your creative process from another art form?

Alex English is a graduate of Bath Spa University's MA Writing for Young People. Her new middle-grade series SKY PIRATES launches in July 2020 with Simon & Schuster. 

Her picture books Yuck said the Yak, Pirates Don't Drive Diggers and Mine Mine Mine said the Porcupine are published by Maverick Arts Publishing. More of her picture books are forthcoming in 2021/2022.

Monday, 18 November 2019

Back to the stone age - by Lu Hersey

I love research. It saves me having to write anything and yet still feels like I'm working. And research can spark all kinds of ideas - even if you don't really need the information right now, you never know when you might use it in the future.

Which explains how I ended up on a flintknapping course for a day at Berrycroft Hub, in Oxfordshire. The family were mystified, but I told them being able to make a flint knife might be useful, come the revolution. My daughter remarked that come the revolution, we'd all still have kitchen knives. Obviously I ignored her.

My last bit of practical research was going on a Bronze Age dagger making course earlier this year at the same place. What I learned that day might not be much use in a post apocalyptic world without a handy supply of copper and tin, but it was very useful background for the book I was writing, set in the bronze age. Not that anyone in the book makes a bronze dagger, but if they'd suddenly needed to, I was prepared.

My current book (okay, current book idea) is set in the Mesolithic. So of course I wanted to find out how to knap flint in case my characters need to know. Anyway, just like the day spent bronze casting, it turned out to be a very interesting experience. Those stone age people were clever. Knapping flint is much harder that it looks.

Some archaeological artefacts we got to examine before attempting to make our own

The course is run by James Dilley, an experimental archaeologist and expert in ancient technology. James specialises in recreating objects from the past, and probably knows more about making polished stone hand axes and other stone age tools than anyone else in England. He even makes them for English Heritage documentary films, using stone age methods - with no 21st century short cuts.

Our main aim for the day was to make a flint hand axe. There are lots of examples of these in museums, as we've been making them for over a million years. James brought in several original artefacts for us to study and hold (you've no idea how exciting it is to hold a stone axe made 1.2 million years ago).  The fact people were making stone tools perfectly adequately during in all that time meant it had to be easy, right?

A hand axe made by an early hominid 1.2 million years ago

Wrong. Flint is hard and brittle. It often contains fossils and faults that mean the next whack of the stone at your flint rock might chip off a flake of flint, a shower of flint dust, or (in my case) half the axe by mistake. James demonstrated the art, chipping off flakes with amazing accuracy, and made a very passable stone hand axe in twenty minutes.

I ended up with half a badly formed hand axe and a bleeding thumb (accuracy using a stone to whack flint with is very important - a valuable lesson) over an entire afternoon - and that's after a morning of learning to handle flint well enough to make myself a flint hide scraper and a simple cutter. Looking at my broken hand axe and comparing it with a tool made by an early hominid over a million years ago, I have to admit the original was a whole lot better.

James and Harry the jackdaw examine my hand axe to see if it's salvageable

However, the stone age characters in my book will know all about the tools they make and use, and I'll try my best not to include nerdy passages of pure info dump about the process they used to make them. Practical research like this is invaluable - and really fun.

And possibly addictive. I've already booked on a course making containers from tree bark, just like Otzi the ice age hunter had with him when his body thawed out of the ice. And there's making prehistoric jewellery making one coming up that looks excellent...

All of which goes to explain why it takes me much longer to write a book than someone like Enid Blyton ever did. Okay, she might have written over 100 books, but I bet she couldn't make a flint hand axe.

Though sadly it seems, neither can I...

Lu Hersey

Monday, 25 February 2019

Hunting for Treasure - by Liz Kessler

I’ve always believed that writing a book is a very special journey of trust and exploration. It’s like a dance, maybe, or a relationship, or a treasure hunt. In fact, it’s all of those things and more. 

I am actually in awe of the way a book tiptoes into existence. How does it do that? I mean, yes, I put in the hours – lots and lots of them – but I am convinced that there is something more to it than that. Something beyond me, and beyond my understanding. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I do know I am grateful for it.

When I was a child, I used to read Whizzer and Chips and The Beano. One of my favourite things in these comics (other than The Numbskulls; I ADORED The Numbskulls) was a feature on the puzzle page. The Hidden Objects puzzle.

They looked a bit like this:

If you imagine that this picture is the world, and the hidden objects are the pieces of your story, this is what writing a book is like.

The pieces of the book could be hidden anywhere – in a castle or a shop or on a path; in an object on the beach; in the bushy grey hair of someone’s beard; in an unusually shaped cloud; in a conversation. They could be anywhere. I firmly believe that my job as a writer isn’t about making up stories – it is about finding the pieces and putting them together until they form the story they were always meant to be.

I have written over twenty books, and out of them all, this journey of bringing together pieces of treasure to form the story has happened particularly intensely on two occasions. Once was with my Young Adult book, Haunt Me, where every scene came to life in my head as I walked along the coast path listening to a playlist I made especially for this book.

The other time was with my latest book, Emily Windsnap and the Pirate Prince.

I can’t help thinking it’s quite appropriate that a book involving pirates and treasure has brought me closer to this treasure hunt than ever before.

Unusually for my books, I knew the title before I knew anything else. A chance remark from my amazing US publicist Tracy Miracle (yes that’s her real name, and yes she does live up to it) meant that the Pirate Prince was mooching around in the back of my mind for a year or so before it was time to write his story.

That chance remark was the first piece of treasure.

When the time came to start writing the book, I had to decide where to go on a research trip. (I love my research trips and always have at least one per book. They have taken me to all sorts of places from the beaches of Bermuda to a Devon village completely destroyed by a storm.) This one was an easy decision: I had to go on a tall ship.

And here’s where piece of treasure two came in. After a day of scouring the internet for suitable trips, I came across a last-minute opportunity to be part of a tall ship crew. It was sailing out of Tenerife for a week around the Canary islands, and was leaving in five days.

Five days later I was on that ship.

As research trips go, this one was about as special as it gets. Sailing on the ocean on the beautiful Morgenster, feeling the breeze in my hair, tasting the salty spray, hearing the tinkling of the masts at night, witnessing a sky packed full of stars as the ship sliced through dark waves: I lost count of how many pieces of story-treasure I found that week.

The phosphorescence as the waves glinted at us like stars at night; the dolphin that swam through these lights; the inspiring personalities of the ship’s crew, many of whose names I used in the book; the locker that I sat on with my notebook out on the deck, which became known as ‘Liz’s office’; the sunrise across the water; the shop where I bought a crystal on a chain without knowing why, other than a kind of inner knowledge that it would appear in the book – and it did. The old pirate stories one of my crewmates told me each day. And above all, the beauty of the tall ship, Morgenster, that I fell a little bit more in love with each day. Treasure upon treasure, the building blocks of my story were found, gathered, stored for later.

But a little while after arriving home, I had a sense that there were more pieces waiting for me somewhere else.

Several years earlier, I had witnessed an amazing sight at Mont St Michel in France. It was a spring tide and we happened to be there at the exact moment the tide charged in so fast it was like a river. I had never seen a tide come in like this and I was hungry to witness it again. I felt sure that it would have something to do with my book.

So, my partner and I headed off on a road trip to France. I timed the trip for a day when the tide would be at its strongest and highest, and I booked us a room on the outskirts of the castle on the island of Mont St Michel. And here’s where the strange thing happened.

The tide didn’t move me, as I had thought it would. It didn’t race up the beach, carrying inspired thoughts about my plot along with it. We watched, and yes, it was a fast moving tide, but I didn’t feel anything, and my book didn’t call out to it.

For a moment, I wondered if we had wasted the trip. And then the next day, we walked around the castle, and explored the narrow, winding, cobbled streets around it – and something began to stir.

Yes, the tide had brought me back here. But it dawned on me that the tide wasn’t the hidden object in the picture after all. Instead, it was the bustling, bartering atmosphere of the small village that would find its place in my book.

And I remembered that in the old picture puzzles, sometimes you found the objects in places you would not expect to find them. Sometimes you had to work a little bit harder to find the hidden treasures.

Once more, I came home with a head full of ideas and a notebook full of scribbles. And I finally had enough pieces of the puzzle to start working on threading it all together.

And here we are, nearly two years on from my wonderful trip on the Morgenster, and the book is out next month. This is why I love being a writer. Not for sales or awards. (Just as well as I’m not really an award-winning type of author!) Not even for the emails and letters from happy readers, although they are right up there with the best things about the job. 

I love being a writer for the journey. For those moments of connection. For the joy of creativity, in and of itself, seeking nothing but wonder. And above all, for the privilege of following a path that I know for sure is paved with a sprinkling of magic.

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Monday, 18 February 2019

Back to the Bronze Age - by Lu Hersey

Most writers do a lot of research of one kind or another – in fact we can be quite a nerdy bunch. Having just spent an intensive period in a future, post climate change world, looking into plant and animal species that survive desert conditions and working out how to keep people alive through periods of intense heat and drought, I’ve recently taken a quick break in the Bronze Age. 
My replica Bronze Age dagger after a bit of filing

Research can be fun. Sometimes more fun than writing. Writing Deep Water involved a lot of time snorkelling over Cornish seas, studying the sea-life, watching the way the light reflects underwater. Hours. Days. Probably way longer than I needed to. I also visited Fowey Aquarium frequently, communing with the conger eel, watching the pollock swim, and admiring the massive blue lobster. It felt like an essential part of the process… but was it actually just a form of procrastination?

My research for Broken Ground (hopefully out early next year) meant spending hot summer days and even late summer nights in crop circles, wondering at the immensity and complexity of design. Hours of watching water bubbling up in springs. Yes, of course I’ve heard of google – but give me an excuse to do some live research, and I’m there.

Entering a crop circle at twilight

Which is how I came to spend a day earlier this month making a replica Bronze Age dagger. Okay, none of the characters in my current work in progress are actually dagger makers, but after a lethargic, bleak January, I wanted to (literally) fire some energy back into my writing.

stylishly dressed ready for hot metal pouring

Creating something beautiful and potentially useful sounded just the thing to get me started. Not only that, the course was run by an archaeologist who brought finds of Neolithic polished axes and arrow heads with him, as well as a bronze age torc bracelet – AND WE WERE ALLOWED TO PICK THEM UP AND FEEL THEM! For someone like me, that’s close to being in heaven.

Making the mould for the dagger

The process of creating our moulds, using bellows to heat the furnace to an intense, copper-melting temperature, and pouring the liquid metal was almost magical. (In case you’re nerdy enough to be wondering, you add the tin when the copper has already melted – tin melts much faster)

Furnace hot enough to melt copper and tin to make bronze

And the work that goes in when the metal cools down is so much more than I expected – a good few hours of intensive filing, hammering the blade edge, and sanding with glass paper. The result? A rather imperfect, pitted specimen that still needs work – but an invaluable piece of research. Er, probably.

All this research activity may well be stopping me from becoming a Stephen King, who famously just keeps his bum on his seat and writes - and I have to admit he's considerably more productive and successful than me. But sometimes the joy of doing something different can be inspirational in itself.

As writers we spend so many hours, days, weeks, months and even years creating a story, I can really recommend doing something practical for a change. Making something physical, tangible – possibly even useful. Not just a world in your head.

Anyway, not everyone can be Stephen King.

Lu Hersey
twitter: @LuWrites
Some photos courtesy of Laura Daligan and Esther Winckles
Bronze Age dagger making course held at Berrycroft Hub with archaeologist James Dilley