This is the second in a series of blogs inspired by book clubs’ asking me questions about my writing process. Last week I wrote about the thinking process that goes on before I actually sit down to write—a process that can take several months or longer. Today, I’d like to address a particular part of that process—research. Many of my books have a historical element and some characters based on real people (William Shakespeare in The Bookman’s Tale or Jane Austen in First Impressions, for example). Before I write these people and the places they are associated with, I want to find out a little (but not too much) about them.
Why not too much? It’s important for me to remember that I am writing Jane Austen, for instance, not as the main figure in a biography but as a character in a novel. My Jane Austen is a work of fiction, and while I want to get the basic facts of her life right, I also need for her to serve as a fictional character. In the case of Jane, I did read parts of an early biography, but I spent much more time re-reading her novels—and from those novels I began to derive her character for my novel.
I also feel a deep affinity between story and place, so my research often involves travels. In some cases, I am simply remembering travels already taken. The Bookman’s Tale, for instance, begins in Hay-on-Wye, where I have been many times. Peter Byerly has a cottage in Kingham, a village I know well because I have a cottage there as well (though my wife insists that Peter’s cottage is much larger and fancier than ours). In preparing to write about Jane Austen, I visited several places, in particular the tiny village of Steventon, Hampshire, where much of her story in my novel is set. Although the only significant building in the village that remains from Jane Austen’s time is the church, my brief visit there was extremely helpful in forming the story in my mind.
The novel I just sent to my agent is set partly in an English cathedral library. From my previous travels I was familiar with the life and arrangement of English cathedrals, but I had never spent much time in their libraries. I visited three different cathedral libraries while I was in my “pre-writing” phase for this book, and had a marvelous hour-and-a-half tour of the library at Worcester Cathedral that not only helped me understand what the atmosphere and space was like, but also gave me great insight into the kind of treasures stored in these libraries.
Some research, as I will discuss next week, crops up in the course of writing the first draft, but the “deep background,” which often involves travel and meeting interesting people, is one of my favorite parts of the exploration that leads to a novel.