Writing, like having a student, teaches you. Well, of course, it gets you practising your craft, but there are 5 bonus extras.
For example, in the process of writing the Amanda Cadabra books, I have been enlightened on, among other things, joinery, architecture, Hertfordshire, the history of witchcraft, Cornwall, explosions, structural integrity, the paranormal, treatments for asthma, clinic design, reception areas, churches, stately homes, hidey-holes, cats and apples.
Broadly speaking, they all fall in a small number of categories.
The Big Five
Thes are location, history, costume, language, and customs.
Ok, but why go to all this trouble when it’s just a made-up story? Can’t you simply invent it? Valid point, but the background has to be believable for the plot to flow. Anomalies are distracting. I know that my readers are smart and well-informed. The Devil is in the detail …. if you get it wrong. So how does this work in practice?
X Marks the Spot
For Amanda Cadabra, I had to find a village on the outskirts of a big city. Why? Because it takes place in a village, but I’ve never lived in one. So a hamlet with the demographics of a city is something I can work with. I looked on the map and I was in luck. With the first one I visited, as soon as I drove in, I knew I’d found Amanda’s home.
However, some the action takes place in Cornwall, and it’s a while since I’ve been there. I needed Google Maps, Wikipedia, tourist websites, Google images, and YouTube videos. Finally, I began to see the small town where Inspector Thomas Trelawney lives and works at the police station. Researching place names in Cornwall and Cornish, I came up with Parhayle. His boss and best friend Chief Inspector Michael Hogarth, lives in a small village near the coast. I found the perfect candidate on raised ground overlooking the water and called it Mornan Bay.
Your chosen location will dictate the local flora and fauna: which bird is singing in the hedgerow in late June, what flowers are blooming in the meadow in early May.
What if you set your story right where you live? Well, have you ever shown visitors around your town? Probably, as I have, you’ve looked up points of interest. Which bring us to … history.
Back in the Day
Thanks to showing guests around my city, I learned the height of Nelson’s column, including the statue (169 feet 3 inches/61.59m), what the lions in Trafalgar Square are made of (bronze), when St Paul’s Cathedral was built (1675 to 1710), the length of Tower Bridge (800 feet/240 m), and the stone used for facing Buckingham Palace (Bath stone). Everything that exists in a village or town has a history that gives the location colour and texture.
To give Amanda’s home, Sunken Madley, I needed to research what people in villages did, how they lived. I looked up YouTubes of Village of the Year and listened to what residents said about their lives. My mentor, author TJ Brown also made me a present of two books: The British Countryside and The Book of British Villages . All of this helped me to get a sense of the location for the books.
Wearing Those Threads
If you set your story at any time in the past, you need to be able to mention, even if in passing, what your characters are wearing. Their status and income will also have a bearing on their taste in clothes. This helps the reader build a picture of each person.
Samantha Briggs in Books 2-4, is a fashion victim who runs riot with Daddy’s credit card on Bond Street. For her, I had to research high fashion that would be worn by someone in their late teens. Vogue and reports on the various fashion weeks were a great help here.
Amanda loves the colour orange and has a somewhat childlike sense of dress. I looked at a lot of orange clothes! Inspector Trelawney is always immaculately dressed in suit and tie. What sort of suits would he buy on a policeman’s salary? Shopstyle.com was a great help, so was GQ.
Language? Well, that’s easy. English surely? However, as I wrote to you last week, there is a great deal of variety under that umbrella term: dialects and foreign or regional accents. For Amanda Cadabra, I researched the Hertfordshire accent. I found some rare footage and a recording of some elderly folk speaking the way they did in that county decades ago.
One of my favourite scenes that I tremendously enjoyed writing is of two old Cornish friends in a pub in Cornwall discussing the weather. I had to listen to YouTubes and research Cornish dialect so that I could, phonetically, convey the rich flavour of their speech.
This Is How We Do It
Finally, we come to customs. These vary from place to place, just like language. And happily, they include food. I researched Cornish cuisine and reminded myself of traditional British favourites too: pasties, jam roly-poly, Victoria Sandwich, marmalade roll, scones and fairy cakes. Amanda, Trelawney and Hogarth each were given a favourite biscuit.
So there you have it. Novel writing is an education, but researching for your story is so much fun you don’t realise along the way just how much you are learning. You become five departments in your film production: costume designer, location manager, dialect coach, background researcher and local consultant. This is one of the great joys of being a novelist. And I am convinced that everyone has a novel in them.
I know that I promised to write more about writing in ‘English’ and just how elastic a term that is, and I shall come back to that.
Chapter 8 of Amanda Cadabra 5 has gone into the ring binder (which means its in it’s near-to-finshed form), and the book makes steady progress towards its release in the spring. The first of my crocuses opened today, and I drove past the first magnificent display of daffodils I have seen this year. So, the new novel is shooting up with the flowers. Back soon with more titbits from the writing life.
Happy Almost Spring,
PS If you want to start the series: