April 9, 2014

Writing Club Wednesday: Research: the Essential Marmite, by Sarah Benwell

Keeping up our new tradition of having a special guest poster on the second Wednesday of every month, today we've got the lovely Sarah Benwell, author of the heartbreakingly gorgeous 2015 debut THE LAST LEAVES FALLING. She's British, so please excuse the fact that she spells a lot of things wrong and thinks that all of us know what Marmite is!

Research: the Essential Marmite

Research. You love it or you hate it, sort of like marmite or synopses.  But it’s necessary, right?
Except the other day I heard somebody proclaim that research is a waste of time. “It’s not like I get credit for all that stuff. No one ever sees it.”
 Kids, wonderlings, no. Writing is not – usually – like primary school mathematics. You don’t get to show your working, you just do it and hope you got the answers right. And anyway, “Well, she’s very knowledgeable,” is not as much of a compliment as it sounds, and if that’s what your reader notices above all, you might want to go back and try again.
But just like maths problems, you do still have to do the work, because worse (oh god, SO much worse, I genuinely have nightmares about this) is, “Bollocks. She has no idea. This is wrong, wrong, WRONG.”
Thankfully, you can avoid much of this. Not all of it. There will always be things you miss or misunderstand, but you can reduce the chances. How? Research.
I trust most of you reading this blog to know the basics, but sometimes it is good to be reminded. So here are Sarah’s top tips for Getting It Right:
Sources: We live in the age of the internet. Let’s face it, some of us basically live in the internet, period. Google is amazing. But it’s not the only source, and sometimes it’s far from the best (I know, I know, I’m sorry. **passes smelling salts**).  Try your library – get acquainted with the reference books and fiction. For TLLF I read work by every translated-into-English Japanese author I could get my hands on (if you can read the originals, even better!), and honestly, the details – cultural references and language style and recurring themes – have made all the difference. Similarly news and music and art and movie/TV trends.
Go places. If you can visit the places you’re writing about, do. There’s nothing better than knowing exactly what it smells like, or how the wind grabs at your hair, or how that clerk at the museum desk greets visitors. If you can’t get to the right place, somewhere similar can work; it might not be the right swamp, but there might be another one nearby which can lend swampy details to your work. And failing that, find all the above and photos and maps pictures. Trek Earth is one of my favourite wanderlust-and-research haunts.
Sometimes, if you’re writing about something/ somewhere unaffected by the internet, you won’t find anything online, and maybe not written (or written in English and available) at all. See ‘go places’. And talk to people. This SO deserves it’s own point…
Talk to people: ;) Whether you can find other sources or not, first-hand information is like gold. It is the holy grail of research. People will meander through answers. They’ll surprise you. You’ll get stories and side-notes, instead of fact sheets. It’s personable and personal and the closest you’re going to get to being or experiencing things outside of your own sphere. And to be honest, it's just common courtesy.
So if you can find a way to communicate with members of that remote tribe, do it. It’s possible, I swear (and for most groups/ people it’s easier. Hello, internet!*). And If you can’t do that, at the very least, try to find people who are close to them, or understand better than you. Talk. Ask questions.  Just be aware of who you’re asking, because there’s always, always bias, even when it’s hidden.
Culture: whether your story’s set in Deepest Darkest Peru, Hobbiton or space, and whether you’re writing humans, orcs or anthropomorphic space-pigs, there will be culture. Stories and songs and sayings, rules and expectations; a million things which all gather to influence your characters. Yes, you want to stay relevant. No, you don’t want to stray too far from your plot, but this stuff matters, and it adds a richness to your work you won’t find anywhere else.
Mechanics: if you’re going into space, you want to know the physics. You probably also want to know your way around a spaceship engine room. If you’re handling swords please know how to wield one or you might get someone killed. If you’re writing about a sick kid in another country, know what healthcare is available. Seriously. This is where your readers stop believing in you and your story if you get it wrong. Become an expert.
Betas: Have people who know your genre or the culture you’re writing or whatever read your manuscript. You can’t know everything. You can’t hold the whole of your book in your head at once even if you do know everything. You’re going to miss stuff. There are things – tiny things and bigger ones – which I’d never ever have put into the book without my betas’ help; things which I’d never have found myself because I wouldn’t have even known to look for them.
Learn how to apologise: even utilising all of the above, with all the time in the world, you will sometimes get things wrong. Often it’s not really a problem. Sometimes, you’ll get something spectacularly wrong and upset people. Apologise. Learn from your mistakes. Move on.

All this sounds like a lot of work, I know. It is. But writing isn’t a quick-fix hobby or profession, and I promise you it’s worth it. And if you’re not convinced by richer, deeper work or accuracy or the chance to win ALL the pub quizzes, I give you my one, final argument: batshit crazy discoveries. Here are 6 randomly selected items from TLLF’s not-in-the-book wonders, and if this doesn’t not convince you, I don’t know what will:

·         Basashi ice-cream
·         The noise fork
·         wabi sabi; a philosophy/ aesthetic centred on transience and imperfection. It’s not so much crazy, but beautiful (for a beginner’s insight, if you can get hold of  Marcel Theroux’s documentary, do.)
·         The KFC Christmas Chicken Dinner. Yes. Pretty clever marketing from KFC, considering how tiny the Christian minority is over there.
·         Tea ceremony. It’s a glorious thing. If you have a few hours/ weeks to spare, go read all about it. Surprisingly though, the annual per capita consumption of tea in Japan is only 0.99kg, compared with 2.74kg in the UK, and 6.87kg in Turkey. Everything in moderation?
·         And this. You’re welcome.

*Shameless plug: wanna know more about minority experiences? Come on over to the DiversifYA archives. Lots of us would be happy to answer further questions, too. Try us!


Sarah is a YA author and mentor. She lives in Bath but prefers living in books, or on planes or trains or remote unmapped places. She’s an advocate of diversity in life and bookcases, and is part of the DiversifYA team.
Her debut novel, THE LAST LEAVES FALLING, is set for release in spring 2015.


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