By Carina Tan-Van Baren and Tamara Hunter
Think research is dry and dusty? Rather be conjuring dragons from the clouds? You could be missing one of the most fun parts of writing a book.
Far from a necessary evil, authors at the 2012 Perth Writers Festival described research as an indulgence, a black hole of such magnetism and depth that they struggled to get to the writing bit at all.
In keeping with his rock star aura over the weekend, Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø told the audience in the ‘Thrill Me, Kill Me’ session that some of the research he had done was “illegal, so I can’t tell you”. But Nesbø did describe an unusual approach to finding one particular answer.
“I needed to know whether you could use a vacuum cleaner to suck out an eyeball. And so I took a vacuum cleaner at home and put it on my eye and gently turned it on,” he said. As the audience gasped, the casual conclusion: “It seems you can’t suck out an eyeball.”
Less alarmingly, Nesbø learned how to parachute and gained a parachuting certificate while researching his first novel on a five-week trip to Sydney in 1997.
Fellow panellists, Australia’s Michael Robotham and South African author Lauren Beukes, triggered the research discussion by comparing their experiences in the sewers of the UK and South Africa.
“The journalist in me means I need to have done the research,” Robotham said. His wife vetoed research trips to Afghanistan and Chernobyl but he did explore the sewers of London with a group of urban cavers for his novel Lost. It was a dangerous and nerve-wracking venture which inspired the creation of a character, Weatherman Pete.
“His sole job was to make sure there had been no showers anywhere in London,” Robotham said. “Someone always stays on top…even the smallest amount of water, it is like God himself has pulled the chain.”
Beukes took an official tour of the storm drains in Capetown. “It was really interesting to me just doing the research in terms of the stuff you can’t imagine,” she said. “The details like, there are cockroaches everywhere and they are congealed in lumps on the walls.”
Beukes went on to describe the sickening crunch and scuttle of the roaches when someone tripped and fell against a wall, dislodging one such lump.
In the ‘Northern Lights’ session, Norwegian author and playwright Johan Harstad said he found it difficult to read fiction because the different voices affected his writing. But he did read non-fiction for research.
“You can indulge yourself in reading and learning about subjects that are utterly ridiculous,” he said. “At the moment, I am reading about hotel carpets and how they decide the ugly patterns. I didn’t know that the more complex and ugly it is, the more dirt it can hide.”
Nesbø, joining Harstad for another festival appearance, said there was a danger in doing too much research. “You feel you have invested so much time in your research that you have to put it in your book,” he said. “The research you want to use are the bits that will drive the book forward.
“I like doing research for the sake of doing research but hopefully I have learned not to put too much of it in my stories.”
In the session, ‘From Little Things…”, Julienne van Loon, author and senior lecturer in creative writing at Curtin University, said: “People think fiction is always about imagination but there’s always some research to do and it’s often the research that solves a dilemma or sometimes even at the same time opens up a whole new box of delicacies for you.”
That ‘new box’ can be a little too tempting.
Acclaimed Australian author Frank Moorhouse described research as “one of the joys and also one of the agonies of writing”. Moorhouse spent 21 years researching and writing the Edith Trilogy, including four years in France and Switzerland studying and working in the archives of the League of Nations.
“The agony of it is there is no end to it. It’s infinite,” he said. “Every dusty document they bring up from the archives of the League of Nations – and they’re not really dusty – but when you open it you think ‘Oh my God’ and as you read it you realise you must then have the adjoining files and the files on either side of those files, and it’s infinite.
“With Grand Days for instance, which was my first of the books, I spent all that time in Geneva and some time in Washington. I thought even if the book had failed it was not wasted.”
Favel Parrett, author of Past the Shallows, went to Macquarie Island on an icebreaker as research for the novel she is currently working on.
“It was one of the greatest trips of my life,” she said. “The research has been so amazing and opens up so many questions. But there is a line where you have to stop and do the writing. I like the research so much I could just keep doing that for a couple of years or more.”
So what have we learned? Research is important but it can be incredibly diverting. If you don’t sit down and write at some stage, all you’re doing is having fun.
It sucks to be a writer.
Julienne van Loon is a senior lecturer in creative writing at Curtin University and the author of several fiction and non-fiction books . Her first novel, Road Story, won the Australian/Vogel Award in 2004.
Other reports from the 2012 Perth Writers Festival >