Saturday 18 August 2012

Random Thoughts in August - Celia Rees

I was lucky enough to be asked to the Edinburgh International Book Festival this year.  A flying visit,  up one day, back the next, so I didn't have much time to mooch round Edinburgh, one of my favourite cities. I have never actually set a book there but I did once go on a ghost tour and found plenty of material for a whole series of spooky books (back when I wrote that kind of thing).

I was there for an event, in conversation with Sally Gardner, who although not a History Girl, is an excellent writer of historical fiction, whose titles include I, Coriander, The Red Necklace and The Silver Blade. Our Chair was ex History Girl, Nicola Morgan. We were there to talk about our latest books. Her novel, The Double Shadow, is historical but like her other fiction has a fantasy twist to it. I was talking about This Is Not Forgiveness, which is not historical, but I guess soon will be. 

Afterwards, we were taken for lunch (there have to be some perks) and Sally and I had a very different, more intense, more private conversation about writing. What else? Put two writers together, especially when they write in a similar genre, and the conversation always comes round to some aspect of our craft. It is always interesting to know how someone else works, what someone else does, how they go about things, with historical novels, how they research. Sally is very different from me. She likes to consult experts in the particular field that interests her. I don't do this. That's always made me feel vaguely guilty, that I'm really a dilettante. I've always been a tiny bit scared that when I explain what it is I want to know, what it is about, they will tell me, 'Oh, no, you can't do that!'. So I prefer to nose about on my own.

The beauty of these conversations lies in what you learn about yourself as a writer, not just the other person. Talking to Sally, I realised, yet again, that there are no rules, no right or wrong way to go about things. There's just what works for you. One can can learn from other people, but one doesn't have to be like them. 

You can even break your own rules or working habits. For example, I don't usually consult documents. My primary sources have tended to be published letters, diaries, novels, plays, poems, songs. I don't go to the archive offices and ferret about in dusty papers. I'm not a historian, I tell myself, I don't have to do that, but recently you would have found me in the Imperial War Museum Research Room, opening boxes and undoing bundles of letters. It's not how I normally work, but it seems right for the project I'm working on now. 

Every writer has to learn to follow his or her instincts. Do what feels right. Fiction writing differs from non fiction. It is much more intuitive. A lack of discipline is sometimes an advantage. What I really like is being able to explore odd avenues, go off on tangents. As you can see, I have been doing 'proper' research, which also includes going to the library (I have always done that). In my case, Warwick University Library. August is a good time to visit. It's quiet in vacation time and they have a coffee bar downstairs, as well as an excellent collection of books. I'm still capable of being distracted, however, going 'off task'. Walking along the shelves, I spotted this book. 

Not on my reading list, nothing directly to do with my research at all, I just knew I had to get it out. Through the wonders of the internet, I have now downloaded it as a pdf file. It is not directly relevant, but I'm not writing a definitive history of the period. I'm looking for plot lines, ways into characters. That is what this book can give me. I also know that I'm past the background research stage and into something new. 


Sue Bursztynski said...

There's something wonderful about going off on a tangent while doing research. It happens to me all the time. You are looking something up, find something else and say,"ooh, that looks interesting!" and follow the link if on the Net or borrow the book if in the library. And then THAT has something to follow and so it goes... I think you and I would be very popular at trivia quiz nights.;-) The book you mention sounds fascinating. I'm sure it will come in handy sooner or later for a novel.

Laurie said...

I'm with you Celia. Solitary nosing around always seems more fitting for a novelist than interviewing experts. I suspect it lessens the likelihood of a story sinking under the weight of information.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Which doesn't mean you can't give your first draft to an expert to read and make sure you haven't stuffed up a small and silly detail (of course, you would have researched the big stuff). I've read a couple of your novels and never noticed anything jarring. :-)

Katherine Langrish said...

I would have wanted to read that book too! Research is a joy (it's the writing that's hard!)

Katherine Roberts said...

Yes, I understand those Nazis were seriously into the occult! Just been watching Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark...

Hope you enjoy Edinburgh. I remember the Festival from 10 years ago when I broke their microphone reading out the curse from "The Great Pyramid Robbery"... not been asked back since!