This is a piece I wrote some time back about the research process, and how it works for me. It will be familiar to some of you, but new to others. It gives a glimpse into the fun side of writing.
It all started with a simple scene of seeing Jamie flying his plane (a Gypsy Moth given to him by his grandfather) over a herd of elephants. Now it’s progressed to an entire side story that takes place in his past in the highlands of Kenya, with bits occuring in Uganda. In short I have become obsessed with Africa. My house is strewn with books on everything from gorillas to boy soldiers, to how one actually zombifies a person (no, I’m not kidding). I can’t seem to stop myself.
I thought this might be interesting, because two of the most frequent questions I get as a writer are a)where do you get your ideas?’ and b)don’t you hate doing the research? The ideas, I swear, come from some other realm, and the muses flit back and forth between this one and that. Sometimes they are kind and present the ideas fully formed so that I know how they fit in the story and how it furthers the plot. Other times they just chuck them at my head and say, ‘you figure it out’ and flit off, sprinkling muse dust in their wake. This Africa thing is the latter sort. And as for the research, unfortunately I think I love it a little too much. I could spend years pouring through books in every library from here to Timbuktu…if only I could find someone to finance such lovely madness, I’d probably never get another book written, I’d just gad from country to country, signing up for library cards and sitting in dusty rooms sneezing and reading, reading and sneezing, quite happily.
Research is a monster, because one book inevitably points out ten more that you need to consult and of course those ten very hospitably do the same, until you can’t see the floor on your side of the bed, because it’s knee deep in books on how to dye your own African headwraps and cook a wildebeest when you’re lost in the Kalahari, not to mention how to fly a plane that was built in the ’30s.
You find yourself starting sentences, whilst speaking to your husband, with “when we go to Africa…” to which he wrinkles up his forehead and says, “I thought we were going to Russia.” (your Russian obsession was at least three months ago, why is he still bringing it up?) You ponder such things as, ‘should we stay at Treetops the way the movie stars did, or rough it in the bushes with the lions and tigers and bears…’ you shake your head sternly, there are no bears in Africa. You brew yourself Rooiboos tea and call it ‘bush tea’ and think to yourself that a brightly coloured sarong would be much more flattering to your ‘traditionally built’ self than these damn jeans.
You think maybe you should have been an aid worker in the Congo, think maybe you should do this after the children are grown and gone, you picture yourself in bright smocks teaching childbirth classes- though you have no training in this area but do have a friend who perhaps you can coerce into said African trip with you, who will actually do the real work, while you talk to George Clooney and Brad Pitt about the progress being made at the clinic. You picture yourself being featured on Anderson Cooper’s 360- what you talk about is a bit fuzzy, but Anderson clearly adores you by the end of said fuzzy interview (it is this interview that causes George and Brad to come visit your clinic). But then you think about things like hot baths, how much you hate mosquitoes and what if you ended up somewhere that didn’t stock large amounts of Diet Coke? You admit to yourself in a moment of sad clarity that you are not likely aid worker material but feel that at least you have the ability to be honest about who you are- which leads to a feeling of smugness that you know isn’t warranted.
You wonder why your parents couldn’t have given you a good Swahili name, like so many other hippy parents of the times. Afterall if they had named you Samira, surely you would be a far more exotic woman, able to tempt George Clooney and Brad Pitt with a mere look tossed over your tie-dyed shoulder, it’s just your sad little Western name that’s been holding you back all these years. Then you realize that Samira is a little too close to the name of that creepy little girl in ‘The Ring’ and you’ve managed not to think about ‘The Ring’ in months, so damn it, why are you thinking about it now when it was almost purged from your memory, except for nights when your husband is away and you picture said creepy girl crawling out of the tv in your downstairs family room…
See how my thinking goes? It’s lucky I get any writing done at all. 🙂
The upshot of all this will likely amount to about twenty pages in the finished novel, but now you have some idea what doesn’t make it onto those pages. Aren’t you glad?
In the end none of the African bits made their way into Flights of Angels but they may pop up in the next book, who knows where that one will take me…