How do writers research? My top 10 tips!

 

One of the things that put me off writing a book for years (other than fear of failing, fear of making a fool of myself, fear of being terrible at writing and shattering my author daydreams) was the research. How did writers know all the things that went into their books? I guessed that high profile authors, perhaps had police contacts on speed dial to check out procedures but what about the rest of us? Those starting out? What happens when Google just doesn’t cut it?

Writing ‘The Sister’, I shied away from including anything I didn’t know much about which left…. very little content. I had to reach out to experts and the thought terrified me.

I remember, with clarity, the way my hands shook, palms sweated, as I made my first call to the fire department to ask for their advice (and no, I didn’t ring 999 claiming a plot emergency) tentatively explaining I was writing a book and wanted to be as accurate with the details as I could. I was told someone would call me back. Despondent I hung up, sure I’d never hear from anyone. Later that afternoon my phone rang, a man introducing himself as Chief Inspector and my heart skipped beat, certain I was about to be arrested for wasting time, but he was lovely and helped enormously. His advice changed the whole scene and he worked on the detail with me until we were both happy.

I realised then that most people are happy to talk about the things they have a passion for and knowledge of. Since ‘The Sister’ I’ve spoken to numerous people about various things – the concept of cellular memory for ‘The Gift’ (a heart retaining memories of its donor so the recipient knows things they shouldn’t…) Prospagnosia (Face Blindness) for ‘The Date’, surrogacy and law for ‘The Surrogate’, brainwashing for ‘The Family‘ and kidnapping for the forthcoming ‘The Stolen Sisters‘.

One of the most interesting things I have researched is neuroscience for my latest publication ‘The Life We Almost Had’ which is my debut contemporary fiction novel published under my pen name ‘Amelia Henley’. I’d become fascinated with consciousness and, for fun, I wanted to write a story set in current times but to expand on scientific elements for part of the plot (and yes I know this sounds vague but I don’t want to give spoilers).

I called up Magdalen College in Oxford and explained what I was doing and they invited me to sit in on some lecturers. I met some of the world’s leading experts in their field and I found it so enjoyable so much so that I’ve been looking into formally studying science in some capacity.

There’s a danger, when authors research, that they want to put everything they’ve learned into the story because they’ve spent so much time learning and because they’ve found everything so interesting and this is something I definitely had to bear in mind with ‘The Life We Almost Had.’ At it’s heart, it’s a sweeping love story and I often found myself cutting out technical explanations that I knew some readers would find boring, and getting back to Adam and Anna’s tangled relationship.

Writing ‘The Life We Almost Had‘ took me to Lanzarote where much of the story is based. Research trips are great fun sometimes so much so I forget to do the actual research…

Here are my top tips for researching: –

  • Take the time to choose who you think can best help you carefully, for instance there are many different types of lawyers, doctors etc.
  • Approach people respectfully – I never ask questions in my initial email but rather ask if they’d be willing to answer questions and I let them know roughly how many or how much time I think I’d need for a phone chat.
  • Don’t fire off the same email to dozens of people asking for help and waste people time if they all reply.
  • Plan ahead so you can continue writing while you wait for a response. Appreciate people are busy and they might not get back to you straight away.
  • Also make sure you have your questions ready before you ask for help. For the book I’m currently writing I emailed a charity, assuming that because of the pandemic they might not have the time or staff to get back to me at all and they called me five minutes later and I wasn’t prepared!
  • Don’t include everything you’ve learned however interesting, ask yourself ‘does the reader need to know this and does it move the plot forward’.
  • Blogs are a great place to find people who want to talk. I found many transplant patients this way who were happy to share their experiences with me.
  • Remember that although books are entertainment as a writer you are dealing with experiences that people have lived through. Be kind. Be sensitive.
  • Don’t assume everyone wants to be in the acknowledgements. After someone had helped me I mentioned in passing I’d thank them at the end of the book and they asked me not to as they didn’t want their boss to know they’d divulged information.
  • It’s okay to take artistic license to suit the story but I always state in my acknowledgements if I’ve done this (in ‘The life We Almost Had’ I credit a neuroscientist but mention I’ve had to progress science to fit my story.)

The Life We Almost Had‘ is currently 99p across all digital platforms during August. Download it from Amazon, iBooks, Kobo or Google.

You can preorder the paperback from Amazon or Waterstones or support your local bookstore. 

Find my psychological thrillers on Amazon here.

All books are available as ebooks, audiobooks and paperbacks.

Publication day & why I feel so vulnerable

 

Today is publication day for my fourth psychological thriller, The Date and although early reviewers are unanimously calling it my best book yet, my emotions are mixed; excitement and nerves. Fear and hope. This is the story I never thought I’d finished after several false starts. My main character, Ali, suffers from Face Blindness and it took me a long time to really get to grips with the emotions she feels after acquiring this condition in her 30’s.  I first heard of Prospagnosia through a BBC documentary featuring Hannah Read who suffers from the most extreme case in the UK. (You can read about that in a previous blog here). I often approach difficult subjects when I write and it’s so important to me to remain sensitive and empathetic. A book may predominately be entertainment but real people are living very real lives within the subjects I write about and I want to remain respectful of that at all times. This is the time I feel most vulnerable. Of course it’s inevitable that not everyone will love a book, but I never want anyone to think I’ve taken the emotional side of my story lightly.

Three years of trying to get Ali right, and much research later the book is today in the hands of readers who I hope will enjoy the story and perhaps learn a little about a condition that is far more common than you’d think.

Order The Date from Amazon, iBooks, Kobo and Google.

If you want to hear directly from Hannah about what it’s like to live with Face Blindness and the challenges she faces, check out our short YouTube interview here.

In the meantime, here’s the blurb: –

One night can change everything. 

‘I know it as soon as I wake up and open my eyes… Something is wrong.’

Her Saturday night started normally. Recently separated from her husband, Ali has been persuaded by her friends to go on a date with a new man. She is ready, she is nervous, she is excited. She is about to take a step into her new future. By Sunday morning, Ali’s life is unrecognisable. She wakes, and she knows that something is wrong. She is home, she is alone, she is hurt and she has no memory of what happened to her.  

Worse still, when she looks in the mirror, Ali doesn’t recognise the face staring back at her…

 

THIS is what inspired my new novel… Guest post by Rebecca Stonehill

 

I’m a huge fan of Rebecca Stonehill’s beautiful writing so when she contacted me to tell me she was releasing a new novel I was super excited. Today I welcome Rebecca onto my blog where she’ll share the inspiration behind her new release, the fabulously titled ‘The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale’. Over to you, Rebecca!

 

The setting often comes first for me: with my first novel, The Poet’s Wife, I was inspired by my time spent in Granada, southern Spain; The Girl and the Sunbird I knew would be my ‘Nairobi’ novel as this is where I live and I wanted to wind back the clock to find out what it was like in its beginnings as a town.

As for my third novel, The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale (to be published 11 November 2017), the setting was again integral, but this time, not because I’d ever been there. As a child, one of my favourite pastimes was to heave down one of the heavy albums from my mother’s bookshelf in her bedroom, filled to bursting with photographs. I loved the photos of past family holidays, and my aunts and uncles when they were younger. But, more than any other, there was an album I returned to again and again.

It was from my mother’s travels from around 1967-1968, a period when she hitchhiked from England down to Greece, worked as an au pair in Athens and then travelled on to a tiny village set in a bay in Southern Crete named Matala, a place she found hard to leave. As a child, I was captivated by these sepia-toned photographs. A handful of scantily clad travellers clustered around a series of sandstone caves they slept in. The odd flag flapped outside a cave opening in the breeze and travellers squint into the camera against the fierce Cretan sunlight above a beautiful, deserted beach.

I desperately wanted to go there but, even more importantly, the seed was planted: one day I would set a story there. I had no idea what form this journey would take, but it didn’t matter; this would come in time.

Matala and those photographs from the late 1960’s have never left me. It is only in the past couple of years though that I’ve had the opportunity to develop and mould the story into what it has become. My protagonist is Jim, a handsome, arrogant but troubled eighteen year old from Twickenham who hitchhikes to Matala in 1967 in search of fun, and to escape his repressed parents. What I didn’t want, though, was for this to be simply a 1960’s coming of age story. I knew very little about what happened in Crete during WW2 but, researching it more, a story of how to link the two periods slowly emerged.

I finally made it to Matala during the late summer of 2016, with my mother as well as her sister and friends who also spent time in the caves. It is now a resort and much has changed from those days of long ago. Tourists pay money to visit the caves where the ‘hippies’ once stayed and, going much further back, where people from the Neolithic period buried their dead. But the spirit of Matala remains: a place of freedom, of gently lapping waves and, if you take the time to sit with a coffee and piece of backlava with one of the locals, of numerous stories.

The one I have chosen to tell follows Jim through Europe down to Matala. At first, it’s the paradise he dreamt it would be. But as things start to go wrong and his very notion of self unravels, the last thing Jim expects is for this journey of hundreds of miles to set in motion a passage of healing which will lead him back to the person he hates most in the world: his father.

Taking in the counter-culture of the 1960’s, the clash of relationships between the WW2 generation and their children, the baby boomers, this is a novel about secrets from the past finally surfacing, the healing of trauma and the power of forgiveness.

I’m looking forward to seeing this book out in the world after brewing for more than thirty years!

In Matala, Crete, September 2016 with my mother, cousin, auntie and their friend who they were in Matala with in the Sixties.

 

 

 The caves in Matala in which travellers once slept in, the inspiration for my novel.

 

That sounds wonderful, Rebecca. Thanks so much for sharing the story behind the story. Wishing you the best of luck. 

 

Rebecca can be contacted through her website, on Twitter, or via Facebook. You can sign up to Rebcca’s mailing list here.

You can buy The Secret Life of Alfred Nightingale via Amazon US or Amazon UK. Here’s the blurb: –

A compelling page turner of a buried past resurfacing, set against a backdrop of the 1960’s youth culture and war torn Crete.

1967. Handsome but troubled, Jim is almost 18 and he lives and breathes girls, trad jazz, Eel Pie Island and his best friend, Charles. One night, he hears rumours of a community of young people living in caves in Matala, Crete. Determined to escape his odious, bully of a father and repressed mother, Jim hitchhikes through Europe down to Matala. At first, it’s the paradise he dreamt it would be. But as things start to go wrong and his very notion of self unravels, the last thing Jim expects is for this journey of hundreds of miles to set in motion a passage of healing which will lead him back to the person he hates most in the world: his father.

Taking in the counter-culture of the 1960’s, the clash of relationships between the WW2 generation and their children, the baby boomers, this is a novel about secrets from the past finally surfacing, the healing of trauma and the power of forgiveness.