Pheasants, Farmers, and Phalluses: The Prime Writers on Research

Have you ever needed to know how it feels to twist the head off a pheasant? Or skin a squirrel? Have you ever wondered what the slang word for ‘penis’ was in the 1920s? Have you ever been curious about how much rain falls in an average Oklahoma winter?

These and other arcane subjects have all featured in the Prime Writers’ research efforts. Research is not just for writers of historical novels. Unless you’re writing a memoir, some research is necessary—and even for a memoir, some fact-checking will be required. That’s just another name for research. Even if you’re writing about the future, you will want to find out if something is plausible.

Whenever I meet readers, the first question is always, ‘How did you do your research?’ I can see the hope in their eyes, that I’ll say something interesting, like I flew through a hurricane in a biplane to experience its full magnitude. The truth always disappoints. My research for Summertime consisted mostly of sitting in my home office in Wiltshire for several months, reading about the Labor Day hurricane of 1935: non-fiction accounts, survivor stories, history books, contemporaneous documents such as newspapers and government reports, and meteorological studies. Living in England, I relied mostly on my memories of growing up in Florida for the sights, smells, and sounds of my home state. Of course, I also had to find out about the food, drink, clothing, and general living conditions of rural Florida in the 1930s, which mostly involved a lot of time wandering the halls of House Google.

In addition, readers often want to know whether we research first and then write, or whether the two move along in tandem. For me, there is an initial period of pure research, while I get to grips with the real events that I want to dramatise, and work out whether they will make a compelling novel. I love this phase, trawling back through time, hoping to unearth a forgotten gem. It takes months, following multiple dead ends, and when I finally find a good candidate, I read all I can about it. I annotate my research materials, then transcribe the annotations into a notebook organised by subject: food, daily life, interesting linguistic usages, and historical details. From then on, I can mostly refer to the notebook, going back to the print copies and my bank of images for visuals.

But once the writing starts, there is a continuing need for more information, driven by the direction of the story and brought about by unexpected brainwaves. This is how I found myself looking at aninteractive timeline of male genitalia terms through the ages. One of my book 2 settings is a brothel in Key West in 1920, and I needed the authentic slang term for penis from the period. I marvelled at the scholarship that went into this tool (sorry), which begins in the 1360s. The answer to my research question? I’m going with ‘whanger’.

When I shared this with my Prime Writer pals, they were equally fascinated (or maybe bemused), and provided some of their more unusual research methods, all in the service of getting closer to the characters and giving their stories the vital ring of authenticity.

SD Sykes, known for her medieval crime novels, Plague Land and The Butcher Birdgarderobe,  became obsessed with medieval Venetian chimneys. She says, ‘I dragged my husband around Venice looking at external flues – he was enormously impressed!’ Nor could she resist sitting down in a medieval ‘garderobe’ (polite word for toilet), just to know how it felt (see photo).
Both Martine Bailey (An Appetite for Violets, A Penny Heart) and Claire Fuller (Our Endless Numbered Days) needed real first-hand experience of another kind. For Martine’s ‘culinary gothic’ novels, an intimate knowledge of Georgian cooking is required, which is how she found herself twisting off a dead pheasant’s head before plucking and gutting it (see her in action below). She says, ‘I wanted to get my hands bloody and viscerally feel the 18th century.’ This is why she also took part in re-

Martine pheasant plucking

enactments and visited an historic farm. Claire Fuller’s novel is set in modern times, but in a remote European forest. Her characters must hunt to survive, and squirrel features prominently on the menu. She says, ‘I watched an awful lot of Youtube videos of how to catch wild animals. But I also wanted to find out what it was like to skin and eat one, so my accountant shot me a squirrel (he regards them as pests on his farmland) and put it in his freezer, ready for me to have a go. Unfortunately (or possibly fortunately, depending on how you look at it), but the time it had defrosted, the poor animal had rotted, so I never got to try.’

Peggy Riley’s first novel, Amity and Sorrow, is about God, sex, and farming. She says, ‘Of the three, I needed to research farming for sure. Through the many years of drafts, I followed the Oklahoma Farm Report, writing through drought, dirt, and disaster. Every morning I got a “Howdy, Neighbor” email and a good dose of Oklahoma through its weather, markets, grain prices and insurance deadlines. It helped me to root my farmer into the land and the farm into my story.’

Sarah Vaughan (The Art of Baking Blind) also loves spending time down on the farm to get close to her subjects. For her second book, out next June and set in Cornwall, she shamelessly flaunted her Cornish agricultural heritage to gain access to the NFU’s inner sanctum. Although she also spent time in libraries, she says, ‘The memory of octogenarian Humphrey Eddy demonstrating how to hand milk a cow; or recalling how he would ride from the age of six to school, across six miles of coastland; or his wife describing the process of killing a pig is still hugely vivid; as is that of Robin Moore mimicking the sound of a bomb whistling down a chimney – or commenting on the gate being blown from its posts when a bomb landed 300 yards away.’

For Alison Layland (Someone Else’s Conflict), it was necessary to do research for the research. She says, ‘I presented the pivotal scene to a barrister friend to get his opinion on the legal aspects of self-defence, manslaughter, or even murder. He’s not a great reader of fiction so I supplied it in the form of a case brief – and as well as his notes, got a loan of several bookmarked legal text books in return. Little of his advice made it to the novel – I never intended it to develop into a courtroom drama and wanted a deliberately open outcome – but I needed to know where my characters stood and it certainly helped.’

Of course, the real danger in all of this wonderful, evocative excavating is that it can become the end rather than the means, a substitute for getting on with the job of writing. It is so easy to justify a few more hours trawling through yet another database of incredibly moving Spanish flu survivor stories, on the basis that it will inform the writing—when really one is enthralled by the material itself.

So it is very important, when one is following leads from source to fascinating source, drifting ever further from the substance of the book, to keep a firm grip on the point of research, and not let it swallow one whole. Now it’s time for me to get back to writing book 2, just as soon as I have studied a few more of these traditional Cuban recipes, and maybe cooked a few of them, just to help me to get into my female protagonist’s persona.

All in the interests of research, you understand.

2 thoughts on “Pheasants, Farmers, and Phalluses: The Prime Writers on Research

  1. Fantastic post Vanessa… I think it’s always obvious – and appreciated- when someone has carried out research to make a book authentic. The only danger I find when doing research is not trying to shoehorn it ALL in because I find it fascinating – being very choosy and getting the right balance to enrich the story not swamp it.

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