My writing buddy, Brad, keeps urging me to write about my current works in progress and about other books I’ve written that are soon to see the light of day. I thought I’d combine this blog post with a bit of a rant about a passion of mine—research.
Several years ago, I went to see one of the latest block-buster Hollywood movies, which was filmed in Sydney, a town with which I’m very familiar. In the film, the main characters flew in over the harbour (great shots) and then somehow managed to drive from the airport to the CBD, crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge on their way to get there. The whole audience burst out laughing. Someone either didn’t do their research, or more likely didn’t give a rat’s arse about getting it right for the sake of a good glimpse of the harbour, bridge and the Opera House.
Why is getting the route right important might you ask? Well, not only were my friends and I disillusioned, but that error stayed in our minds right through the film. We spoke about it after the movie was over; how could we take the quality of the experience seriously if such a basic error had been made? We agreed that all of us had spent far too much time keeping our eyes open for other mistakes, at the expense of being immersed in the film. It takes nothing to write a letter, pick up the phone, search the internet to get basics right.
If you’re a traveller, just think about how different it is simply ordering a coffee in a coffee shop in most other countries than your homeland. I had a text message conversation with a friend who was holidaying in Italy, asking me to describe (in Italian) to the waiter what it was she regularly ordered from her local hangout back home. The language wasn’t the barrier, it was the product, the procedure, and the ritual. “Double shot, long black in a cup with cold milk on the side”, isn’t universal. What size is the cup? Is it a double shot ristretto, or a long double shot …? Anyone who’s eaten Chinese food in both Sydney and San Francisco will tell you the same dishes, although with similar ingredients, don’t taste the same.
As a writer, these sorts of small details are very important. Once you make a blooper about history or place in your writing, you’ve basically lost your reader—maybe for the moment, and maybe even worse, for the rest of your story. It would be the same as publishing your book with spelling and grammar mistakes on the back cover. Most readers would think to themselves that if the basic information is wrong, what’s the rest of the book going to be like?
I write historical fiction. My average time to write a 100,000 word book is about three months for the first draft. I’d say that 30-40% of that time is writing, the rest is research. Some stories, written in periods and based in places in which I grew up, like The Cricketer’s Arms, are merely a matter of refreshing my memory on the sights and sounds of seaside Coogee in Sydney in the 1950s. Others, like the two next books off the rank, Australia’s Son and The House With a Thousand Stairs, have required an enormous amount of research.
Getting it right, or doing your damned best to get it right, is a pre-requisite of gathering your audience, keeping them interested in you as an author, and as a bonus, a way of helping you sleep well at night. Even if people don’t like what you write, you need to be able to rest easy that you’ve done everything you can to be as historically accurate as possible. I promise you, there are people out there who’ll write to you and pull you apart for getting the colour band wrong on a threepenny tram ticket in 1956! (It was green, by the way 😊)
Over the years, I’ve written personal messages and sent emails to the archivists at the Royal Collection, the British Museum, the Imperial War Museum, the Wallace Collection, the Royal Archives, the Australian War Museum, and to Bonham’s, the London Auction House, to name but a few. I’ve posted requests for information from returned servicemen who subscribe to internet groups in Australia, the UK, the USA, Germany, France, and New Zealand. I’ve solicited information from orthopaedic surgeons, trauma specialists, experts on the history of medicine, and lately, on theatre historians and speakers of a quickly vanishing Indigenous Australian language. Not one of the people I’ve written to has been reluctant to help. In fact, a firm of architects in Manchester Square in London sent me not only blueprints of a house that I’d been enquiring about, but also the development application they’d made to the Marylebone Council for the preservation of the heritage listed building.
So, tell me why, when I watched the recent otherwise excellent series of Peace and War, with amazing costuming, locations, and huge budget, were people dancing at a ball to music that had not been written yet, and whose composer was yet to be born? Why did I hear nonsense like “the major 6th chord is the hardest upon which to improvise” from a character who played a jazz musician in a BBC television series? Why did I see an otherwise wonderfully constructed wartime drama have a greengrocer shop stacked to the roof with oranges, lemons, peaches, and bananas? The only answer is as I’ve written above, either someone didn’t give a stuff, or didn’t think to ask. More likely, they didn’t think to bring in an expert in the field for advice, or to consult. (As for heavy metal rock music in historical dramas, I can only roll my eyes and think the director has lost the plot.)
I belong to a group of theatre friends in which there’s a lot of eye-rolling about women’s makeup and men’s facial hair in nineteenth century costume drama. In this period, only prostitutes plucked their eyebrows, wore mascara, lipstick, eyeshadow and rouge. Certainly not ladies of the middle and upper classes. Men did not walk about with 5 o’clock shadows and depending on the period in which the drama is set, wear beards, moustaches, or were even clean-shaven or had short hair. If you’re going to spend a fortune on buying the right sort of lace for a dress and get someone to use authentic patterns to cut it out and make it, then for heaven’s sake, why can’t you research hair styles, make up (or lack of it) and grooming?
I spent thirty years performing at the highest level with outstanding theatre directors, costume and set designers. Those people never got it wrong—and those new to the artform who didn’t do their research did not survive long in the industry. Theatre is littered with the careers of flash-in-the-pan Wunderkinder, who didn’t do their homework or thought they could re-invent history to make it more “current”.
As a writer, it’s important to try to get details right. Sometimes, even though it might be clear to you while you’re putting the words down, it doesn’t make sense to the modern reader. I recently had a longish conversation with an editor over showers. The editor insisted that hardly anyone had a shower in wartime Britain (not bathing, the actual shower itself). It was only that they’d imagined a modern-type shower cubicle with a glass door, and wasn’t old enough to remember the showers I grew up with; the water heated by a gas geyser at the end of the bath that one lit before getting under the water. Or, as in my experience in the outback, heated by a chip heater, in which one piled short offcuts of wood and then set fire to them.
Explanation, in a subtle way can also be necessary. No writer can assume their readers will understand words and objects you take for granted. I recently had need to ask a writer friend how he’d used the word “kettle” in a story. In my culture, a kettle and a teapot are quite different things. I worked it out, but in that time, I’d lost my immersion in the time and place I’d been reading about and had to pull myself out of the story to figure out the meaning. It wasn’t the writer’s fault; I suppose if I wasn’t such a culture vulture, I’d have skimmed past it. But, I’m one of those readers who visualise everything I read, and I guess I’m not alone in that. The choice between over-explaining, and leaving the reader to their own devices is a difficulty I’m not quite sure yet I’ve managed to solve myself. Sometimes the writer needs to assume the reader will just work it out, unless it’s a slang word particular to only your own culture. Do I need to explain “gas geyser; penny dreadful; damper (bread); fetching off” for example, or do I try to write in a way that the word is clearly understood by the sense in which it’s used?
As a reader myself, I revel in the discovery of new words, and in the descriptions of everyday activities in other cultures that differ from my own. The “kettle” episode led me to hours of research and a great deal of satisfaction when reading about the particular racial group that it referred to, and in the location in which the story took place! And, as a result, I enjoyed the writer’s story even more, because it gave me an insight into a world that was new to me.
Having good what we call “beta readers” is the writer’s greatest resource. A handy collection of friends or people one can call upon who are experts in the field one is writing about, even if the writer has some expertise in the subject/time/place themselves After my second or third revisit of a manuscript (usually with a period of a few months between each rewrite to let the story “cook” in my mind and while I get on with other books) I prevail upon people I know to give me general feedback on where I’ve gone wrong. This can sometimes be eye-opening. “Did I really get that important date wrong?” “How did I write a whole story with two different people with the same name?”. Of course, a great editor will pick up these things, but it’s good to smooth out the manuscript as much as possible before it gets to to that stage.
So, as to my next two books to hit the shelves. The first, Australia’s Son, presented its own research problems. I found it amazing that it was easier to discover the tram timetable from Circular Quay to Glebe in April, 1902 than to find out what was playing in the theatres at the time. Discovering the price of things and the cost of living was also relatively easy. Thank heavens for the internet. I remember researching my Master’s degree back in the 80s, where ordering books from other libraries, on the hope you’d find information, could take weeks and months, and then they’d often turn up and what you’d been led to believe was in them had been a red herring, or peripheral to your actual research.
My second book, The House With a Thousand Stairs, although set in a period just a few years before my own childhood in the outback, was made difficult because as a white person, I didn’t want to feel like I was appropriating an Indigenous nation’s culture. Working around common racially charged themes of the time, and the way the white population and the Aboriginal nations collided with each other back then, while trying not to cause offense to Indigenous people in 2019 was particularly problematical. So much has changed over the past sixty years … and yet so little, so it seems.
I eventually decided to leave out many of my own experiences and instead chose to only include rites and beliefs that are available and described in the published literature. My heart was in my mouth when I send the beta version off to an Aboriginal man who belongs to the same tribe/nation as one of my two main characters, and whose culture and language I’ve used in the book. He came back with a huge thumbs up and was greatly excited to read my story, telling me he couldn’t wait to see it in print.
Maaru yananga –garay guwaaldaya. Michael ♥
Australia’s Son is in final edits right now and is due for release in November. The House With a Thousand Stairs goes to the first found of edits in early December. Oh, and did I mention the sequel to my book The Seventh of December, published by Manifold Press, is in edits right now too? Keep your eyes out for X for Extortion, which will be issued in due course.
Who said retirement would be boring?