It doesn't say anything on the tin
Fiddling, hangovers and The Paris Review

In search of odd, crunchy details

I realised sadly a few weeks ago that I was going to have to go to France to research the new novel. This is, of course, the worst possible aspect of the writing life: that we can travel to beautiful or at least interesting places, and set off the whole lot, from the first cup of coffee at the airport, by way of hotel bills, entry tickets and photo printing costs, to the last steak-frites, against tax. I remember saying to my father that it seemed odd that Ian Fleming had suddenly upped and set a whole James Bond novel, You Only Live Twice, in Japan. 'I expect he fancied a tax-free holiday there,' said my father. These days I know enough about Fleming (though some things I rather wish I didn't) to know that it wasn't quite as simple as that, but the point stands.

So I don't expect anyone to sympathise when I say that this kind of research isn't without its difficulties. For one thing you can only go when real life permits, which means it may not be the best time from the point of view of your work on the novel. I find that research comes in three kinds, all of which have their optimum moment: the rock-bottom basics which you can't start a novel without, the set-dressing, and the stuff you didn't know you'd need.

The rock-bottom basics are anything which affects the big architecture of the novel: rough travel times and distances, whether your characters can have the jobs you want them too, the basic mores of the world in which they live. These are the foundations of plot and structure, and changing the structure of a novel is like trying to turn an oil tanker round, so it's as well to check how long a broken leg takes to mend before you plot the damn thing. (I learnt that one the hard way, and one of my first tax-deductible purchases was an immense nursing textbook, to make sure it never happened again.) So getting these right at the beginning, is really, really worth it, but they're not, mostly, things that depend on getting your feet on the ground.

Calling the second kind set-dressing doesn't do it justice, because the textures of food and the sounds of cloth and the games your characters play when they're drunk on - what? - are more than incidental: they're the warp and weft of your novel's fabric, the things which will make its world come alive. They're also the things which will carry much of the non-narrative ideas, and the springboard for much of your figurative language (and if your figurative language isn't part of such non-narrative structures, then maybe it should be). I've built up a fair library of histories of transport, marriage, sex, food, costume, churches, medicine, castles, debutantes, sailors, housewives and saints, and there's always the net, for that quick grab for some necessary facts. But for the curves and crags of the landscape and the smell of the backstreets there's no substitute for going there. If you leave going there late, you'll know what you want, but it may be too late for what you find to inform - shape, illuminate, transform - your original conception of the novel. If you go too early you may not be looking for the right things, because your knowledge of the novel is still theoretical, based on paper plans, not an actual entity.

And this is even more true of the stuff you didn't know you'd need: the stuff you only see when you get there. Could I have known, till I was wandering the streets of Bilbao, that on that Atlantic coast those tall, typically southern European buildings would have their typical balconies glassed in? How perfect for a novel that was all about windows, reflections, light and above all voyeurism! But of course the earlier you are in the process of writing the novel, the more you have to accept that you may miss things that you could have used: so much is still misty, un-formed, undeveloped. And again, if you go later, you may find things which contradict or shake your confidence in what you've written: must you go back and cut or re-write even good things? 

And then there's remembering that a novel is not a travel book. While generalising and vagueness (because you don't know the odd, crunchy detail of it) is death to good writing, it can be a drawback to be too wedded to the facts of a place, as of a time. For one thing, haven't we all read books which canter along nicely, then trip and fall flat on a slab of prose that might be straight out of the Rough Guide? And for another, it can be particularly hard to judge a piece of writing coolly when it cost you a lot in time or money, or when you just loved the place, and have succumbed to the most basic writerly desire of all: to get down on paper what has moved or excited or fascinated you. Those are the darlings we're exhorted to murder, so maybe while I'm away, along with the postcards and the wine, I should pick up a nice big Sabatier knife in that delightful market, just for the purpose. (I'm going by train, so it won't be a problem to bring home.)

But who knows what will happen? There's never a single, right time for research, and certainly not when you have to combine so many different kinds of research in one place, at one time. You can't step in the same river twice, and that's part of the nature of creativity: we struggle to create something whole and satisfying, permanent and written in bronze, while recognising that even a change in the direction of the breeze might have resulted in a different book altogether.