Read Write Research

Are you struggling with how to get going with your research? Here are a few tried and tested tips that may help you crack on with it. Not all infallible of course, but you have to start somewhere!

1 – and the most immediate and obvious – The Internet! – go anywhere in the world! Meet people, look at photos, read blogs – and this even applies if you’re setting your novel in a fictional town or village that just so happens is similar to the place you live or grew up in, or is perhaps a favourite holiday destination. If you have an idea for a novel, it would be daft not to use the internet – and especially so on a cold wet rainy day. Save the touchy feeling research for when the weather’s better. And sign up for every newsletter going – that way you get find out about free stuff, new stuff, odd stuff.
2 – my favourite – Listen. Or ear-wigg. Or eavesdrop – whatever you want to call it – listen to snippets of conversation and write them down. Anywhere there are people is good for this; in the winter, cafes, supermarkets, cinemas etc. In warmer weather, parks and public spaces. Be alert! And take a notebook and pen. Or dictate – whatever you do, don’t miss the moment. Often random comments can help create a character or even lead to a whole scene you hadn’t even thought about.
3 – Talk. And not always to yourself. Sure, dictate notes into your phone or whatever, but strike up conversation. Some people will give you a wide berth, others will be more than happy to chat. And it’s all research.
4 – Whenever you can, research through reading and observation, both of which are free. Use your library, bookstores and local cafes. In these quiet places you can read to your hearts content. When writing fiction it’s important to read in your genre so that you understand who essentially, you’re writing for. If you want to write crime for example, get ten crime novels from your library, pitch up in a cafe and get scan-reading. If after chapter two of a particular novel you know you don’t like it, make notes as to why – poor use of English? Too much English? Slang? Sentence structure? Knowing how you don’t want to write is great help in defining how you do.
5 – For historical fiction research you have to know your onions because you can absolutely bet your readership will, and they can be very unforgiving if you get it wrong. If you find two conflicting references to the same thing, seek out a third and if you’re still not sure, don’t include it.
6 – Logistics. You must get your logistics right. If you’re following characters a, b and c down a corridor and character d appears from behind a fake palm tree, then the narration immediately has that character following, the reader will want to know how character d suddenly got behind them all without anyone noticing. If you have people on bus seats, make sure the right person stands at the right time for it to make sense in the story.
7- Travel/ing – If you’re writing about a journey on a bus, for example – go on a bus! Feel the seats, smell the smells, see the litter, note the bus driver’s expression or sitting position. All these small details can bring a character to life.
8 – Local Attractions. You don’t have to go globetrotting of course – a trip to the local supermarket can be a deep well of research. Need to take a character to Istanbul or Poland just so they can have something to eat? Check out the international aisle and see what you can buy. Then buy it and take it home and eat it. Experience the taste and flavours. And keep a look out for exhibitions in your locality – museums for example, local art festivals, council-funded displays etc. Much can be found on your doorstep and much of it free.
9 – Getbackto. Write what you need to write and when editing highlight the areas that need clarification through research. Then on a different day, let’s call it A RESEARCH DAY, (snappy huh? yeah I thought so too) you can spend the whole day researching, rather than trying to write and research at the same time and getting so completely distracted that you, literally, lose the plot.
They way you research is personal to you – there’s no right or wrong way. We all learn differently. I know one writer who has different colour pens for each character and when he’s researching something they’d do, he only writes about them in that colour. So do what you will, your way. If you’re new to research it may help to create some questions for your characters to answer to keep you on track. Why doesn’t Edwin like tomato soup, for instance? Does it matter that he doesn’t? It might. Don’t worry about excluding something of course – not all research is relevant and if it’s delivered in clumpy spade-loads, your readers may soon feel they are being told something rather than absorbing it through the narrative and that can be very distracting.

So, done enough research for today? Crack on then!



Eggs Not Eyes

I’ve just been pickling eggs. No, stick with me. I don’t often pickle things, and when I do it’s usually cabbage-based, but a passing comment from a bloke in a pub who extolled You aint lived until you’ve ‘ad a pickled egg encouraged me to cast aside my usual underused gastronomic library and Do A Pickled Delia. Plopping them one by one into the vinegar was quite a rewarding experience. Firstly, there was the aroma. Nothing smells like egg. No, not even that. Only egg. Secondly, there was the faux-erotic feeling of the peel: still warm and plump but the damned shell stuck to everything in sight. Thirdly – and this is the best bit – dropping them with a plosh, followed by a slightly off-kilter bounce into the vinegar and watching them drop, float and turn slightly until they found their balance. Most rewarding. All very much liEggs Not Eyes.jpgke writing a successful short story or novel, I’d say.

Oh? You disagree? Fair doos. But look at it this way. That aroma. Nothing else smells like that aroma – so for aroma think Idea. Your best idea yet for a story. And this time, it’s unique. Secondly, the feeling you have when you begin to write; when you know that this time you’re in with a chance – a smooth, confident feeling as you peel away all your bad habits of misspelt words and sentences that in previous works would have been hung drawn and quartered by the Grammarfinder General. Then the next bit, dropping your words onto the page, to watch them – with the help of copy, paste and move – traverse the digital page until they find their right order and settle themselves down, only to stare back at you from most delicious structure a sentence could ever be in, culminating in block after block of compelling paragraphs anyone anywhere would want to read.

Or maybe your story will look like eyes in a jar: not what you expected. Somehow different to your intention. That’s not a bad thing. Go with it and see where it takes you.


Last week I discussed my discussion with a friend about the importance/point/necessity of entering writing competitions. Well, who’d have thought – my short story The Raven has been chosen as one of the finalists in The Squat Pen Rests Short Story competition. Not only did we all have to write brilliantly, to be crowned the over-all winner we have to perform our short story in front of a live and expectant audience. Yikes! This Friday, Jan 26th, myself and the other 5 finalists will be piling in to The Wyvern Theatre in Swindon to strut our stuff. Win or not win, (there are no losers!) it’s bound to be an amazing experience.

So if you’ve ever been in two minds about whether or not to enter a competition, what the point of entering is – please see above. I entered quite a few last year and got a bit fat no-where. Pleased now of course, that such abject, continual and unrelenting failure and rejection didn’t put me off. I like to think of Rejection as Rejuvenation, Failure as Fuel.

Thanks to Stephen Tuffin for organising, and thanks to the excellent website ShortStops which is where I found the comp listed in the first place. It’s a great site and worth signing up to.

Squat pen?

by Seamus Heaney
Between my finger and my thumb  
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound  
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:  
My father, digging. I look down…

Every One’s A Winner

What’s the point of Writing Competitions? a newbie writer recently asked me. Ah, well, I began…
A few years ago I won a writing comp run by a well-known writers’ magazine and I was absolutely flabbergasted. Straight up. Had no confidence in the story, grammar was beyond dodgy (IMHO) and when I read it now I’m still not sure why it won. No matter how well you construct your story, as well as the judges’ decision being final, it is all **SPOILER ALERT** subjective. Yes folks, you heard it here first – subjection is the name of the game. (Along with rejection.) (But we can leave that miserable, life-sucking, soul destroying ‘tion’ for another day…)
So, Subjection: Based on or influenced by personal feelings, tastes, or opinions.
You’re not wrong there. As if getting the right story, the right word count, the correct format, the hook, the hanger and a hell-of-a-story all in the same place at the same time isn’t hard enough, we’re still hostage to the judge’s opinion, thought or taste. And when you’re up against that lot, how does anyone win anything?
How to.
A recently carefully crafted and painstakingly put-together story that didn’t win a competition sits awaiting another chance in a folder marked ‘Next Time’ (gotta be positive), but having read the one that did win (and its runner-up siblings) I’m at a bit of a loss. Really? I say to myself. Why did that one win? It’s a) not about anything b) not that well written c) not what the remit was at all! Frustrating! Since my win, (so long ago now I don’t think Instagram even existed at the time) I have tried to replicate that winning formula – which itself is a bit of conundrum as I wasn’t sure why it won in the first place. May be because it wasn’t the usual run-of-the-mill horror story. No blood or guts. Or ghosts or vampires. Just terror. Possibly. Who knows? I can’t answer that.
But as granny used to say, it’s not the winning that counts but the taking part. Now, the alphas of the species may not agree – no point in taking part if you’re not going to win they may say, so with that logic as there can only ever be one winner, keep on keeping on. Keep on trying. Keep on writing and entering; hone your craft and write better every time. And if you’re not sure that you are improving, ask for help. And start small; it can be a costly enterprise entering lots of competitions. And if you can find some free ones, even better. Even the ones without prizes are worth a go because it means you’ll be working your hardest to get it right. And for the big guns – the national writing competitions that offer more than just remuneration – do a bit of research on the judges. £10k first prize with a judge whose own books include a history of tanks and paintballing in the West Country probably won’t be that interested in a book about Billy Bunny Tail who got lost in a city and ended up stuck in the revolving doors of a large hedge fund bank. But then again, who knows? All so subjective you see…

The Squat Pen Rests writing comp
Reflex Fiction – international competition
Bath Short Story
Thresholds competition – free to enter and £500 1st prize!
Pen to Print poetry and short story competition
University of Sunderland – closes March 1st 2018
Weekly picture prompt c/o Creative Writing Ink UK
The BBC Short Story Award

Downloader or Paper-Flicker?

None of it is true of course…well… maybe the piling them high on the bedside table bit. Were you a downloader or paper-flicker this Christmas? I bought paperbacks and was given paperbacks and happily flicked my way through them as parsnips
Christmas Books.pngroasted; sadly my digital-loving friends had to make do with socks and hand cream again as tempted though I was to buy them a paperback, I knew they wouldn’t be inclined to read it. And you can’t really give a digital book, can you? So fiddly to wrap. I was surprised though, when admonished (quite severely!) by an elderly aunt for buying her a book. Whatever do I want that for? she questioned, brandishing her Kindle menacingly at me. I could be dead tomorrow she said, and then what? You’ll have to take it to the charity shop. I hope not, I responded, it would ruin Boxing Day. Thankfully the two pre-breakfast sherries sweetened that little joke and by the afternoon she had relinquished her vice-like grip on said Kindle and was poking about in the paperback. Not one for sentimentality though, she wondered how she’d ever managed to read anything before, seeing as this new fangled modern-day print is so small. I didn’t fancy entering the fray again so let that one go. You don’t get to be 92 without having an opinion, that’s for sure.

Vintage Swing

Another great poem by author Chloe Gilholy – an upbeat vibe to put a spring in your step! Super stuff, Chloe!

Chlobo's writing

Order champagne showers
also known as liquid courage
besides the typewriter
with more rhythm
than teenage tunes
and Gameboy colours

Dance under a red chair
and twirling umbrellas
chill in the bathtub
put your cocktails down
by the tiger’s hips.

So put on your lampshades
and your Minnie mouse tights
Don’t blend in when you are
born to stand out!

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