Better than Googling, any day
99% boredom, 1% Barbra Streisand

Sailing ships and heavy gold

A fellow writer has spent quite a lot of the day trying to find out how long it would take an eighteenth century sailing ship to travel from England to India. Of all the everyday details of life in the past, travel times are one of the most infuriatingly hard to find out about. I chipped in with what I could (having tackled a similar problem for The Mathematics of Love) and others did too, including two who have naval-romance-writing friends who then responded to email pleas for help. And still the phones of the National Maritime Museum's library will be ringing in the morning.  'All this,' said the original querier, 'for half a sentence!'

Cost-benefit analysis of the writing life is a funny business. Is it worth spending a precious writing day on perhaps six words? Certainly if novelists refused to write except at freelance rates the Booker list would be almost totally empty: even a 'good' advance doesn't divide well across - what? - an average of four or six hours a day (very few of us can work at full mental pitch for longer, day after day) for a year or two? And if it isn't profitable in money terms, is it in others?

The cost is obvious: that day could have written a thousand other words, or visited somewhere inspiring (no, I will not say 'inspirational' - such a disgusting word) or useful, or even let go of writing altogether. Who, after all, will notice if you just make your best guess (probably no worse than most readers', after all) and leave it at that? It's true that you can't be sure an expert won't pick your book up, and I'm told the naval history buffs are particularly ferocious, but unless you see yourself as a latter-day C S Forrester, who cares? I love Peter Ackroyd's Chatterton, *plot spoiler* and the fact that Ackroyd obviously never discovered in his research that a 'grain', when buying and consuming arsenic, is an apothecary's measure of weight, not a lump you can pick up in your fingers, doesn't spoil the book at all. It's only my own nerdy historical-novelist's wiring that notices.

And yet, we care, and we spend that day. It's partly sheer scholarly conscience, I guess: we may be writing fiction but we still don't like knowingly putting a wrong material fact out there. It's partly - let's be honest - because there are days when any amount of badgering museum libraries is better than trying to think up What Happens Next. And it's also because after a book or two you discover that (just as when you dig down the side of the sofa for the remote control or the toddler's irreplaceable panda) when you set out to find one thing you always find something else much more interesting that you didn't know was there.

But there's also a more intangible reason for research, I think. The usual refuge when you can't find something out exactly isn't barefaced invention, it's vagueness. Ackroyd's mistake at least has a solid, physical specificity about it: Chatterton picks up those grains. But if you're nervous of getting something wrong, you play safe. Stone is grey, no? And castles have high walls. If I hadn't gone to Pontefract to research A Secret Alchemy I might - thanks to Google Image - have got it right, but I might not: scale and perspective and light are funny things. Pontefract castle does loom high above you when you cross the Aire at Ferrybridge and start up the hill, but it's not tall and grey, it's broad and squat-towered, thick with power with its stones like heavy gold. I needed to know that, and to live and breathe the end of A Secret Alchemy readers need to know that too.

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