I’m in research phase of my next project, reading up on life in London during the Blitz, the history of forensic psychology and a mess of other stuff, and something occurred to me. Most of this is never going into the next WIP, and I need to know it anyway.
Seems contradictory, right? I mean if it isn’t going in the book, then why do I need to know it? Sounds like one of those Zen koans – what is the sound of one author wasting his time. But it actually makes perfect sense.
My first two novels were set in the present day and largely in my hometown, so, other than Googling some particular bit of data here and there – what size casing did a certain weapon take, that kind of thing – I could pretty much just write along, sure of my footing.
But my last novel, ROTTEN AT THE HEART, was set in England in 1596 and based around the life of William Shakespeare, or at least around a month or so of his life. That novel started out as a short story (which appeared in a recent issue of NEEDLE, a great crime fiction publication you should check out) that I hadn’t researched at all. Didn’t have to. The whole story was an internal monologue the Bard got into concerning some mischief of his. Sure, I had to write in this flowery faux Elizabethan language, but that wasn’t research, that was just a stylistic thing. The thing is, I had a blast writing it, and I decided I’d try a whole novel. And, at first, I tried to do what I always have done in the past. Usually, once I have an idea, I just dive in and Google what I need to as I go along.
But that wasn’t working at all. See, the short story all took place inside Shakespeare’s head. Which was fine for 1,500 words or so. But you can’t do a novel like that, or at least I can’t. The novel has to take place in a world, and England in 1596 wasn’t a world I knew much about. I am, for want of a better phrase, a method writer. You’ve heard of method acting, right? Where actors actually try to become the characters they play? Try to create in themselves the actual emotions and motivations so as to more truly inform their roles? That’s sort of how I go about writing. I don’t have outlines and character bibles and stuff guiding me from point to point. I have characters that I feel connected with starting out in an interesting situation, and I try to be those characters in my mind, to live their lives, and to write down what happens as they work through their problems.
But when I tried that this time, when my fictional Shakespeare got out of his own mind and walked out the door of his rooms near Bishopsgate in 1596 London, he was walking into . . . nothing. For my first two novels, I knew the geography, the social mores, the politics, all of it. So when my characters stepped out of their own heads and into their fictional worlds, those were very real worlds to me – I could see and hear and smell the settings they were in because they were settings I’d been in myself most of my life. But with Shakespeare, when he stepped out of his head and out into the streets of London, I had nothing. No sense of place, of time, no feeling.
So I got off to a very rough start. In fact, I plain quit on the project for a good couple of months. But I’d already ordered some books, and I started reading them anyway, just for shits and giggles, and the more I did that, the more possible the story started to feel. The thing was, I had to read enough that I internalized a fictional world of my own that my Shakespeare could move through confidently. Did I get it all right? Hell no. I’m no scholar, I’m just a writer. But it didn’t have to be exactly right, it just had to accurately fit some broad historical parameters. The only place where it had to be complete was in my own mind.
And one day it was complete enough. When Shakespeare walked out his door, I knew what people wore. I knew what kind of jobs his neighbors probably had. I knew what they ate and drank. I understood how the Elizabethan theater business worked from a practical perspective, and who Shakespeare’s compatriots and patrons were. I had a basic map of his London in my head – where he lived, where his theater was, where those were in relation to some other landmarks that figured in the plot. I had a broad understanding of the consuming political and social issues of the day. It wasn’t the real London of 1596, but it was a real enough version of it that I didn’t have to think about that world anymore. I could just focus on the story.
Still, most of what I learned in my research never made it into the draft, even some real cool things I read that I sorely wanted to work in. In the end, I didn’t need them in the story, I just needed them in my head. I needed them so my characters had a complete world to wander around in – not necessarily an accurate world, although I was not purposely inaccurate and wouldn’t be – but a world they could be confident in.
So that’s where I am now. I’m still in London, but I’m not in 1596 anymore. I’m in 1940. I know who my characters are, but I don’t have a world for them to walk around in. Not yet.
I’ve found that research for a novel isn’t the exact exercise it was when I was in college and footnoting my sources for history papers. It’s an organic process. I’m planting a garden, the boundaries of which are set by historical fact and the soil of which is a rough mulch of knowledge. When it’s ready, I’ll know. I’ll know because my characters and my story will start popping up out of the ground of their own accord. And then the fun begins.