The perils of information dumping.

Writers are known for doing a lot of research, aren’t they? Or perhaps it depends on the kind of thing they write. It’s probably possible to write a book and not need to do much research at all.

Some writers seem to do tons of research, and they make sure that you, the reader, get to read all of it. ALL. OF. IT. They present it to you like a magician pulling a bunny out of a hat. This is called an information dump. Throwing all your research in this way can be tedious, and will slow down the pace of the story drastically. I mean, yes, it’s nice to offer these insights or explanations to your reader, but I don’t think it’s a good plan to completely exhaust your reader, overwhelming them with information so they feel like they’re cramming for an exam.

Do I really need to know the source of the leather used to make the hero’s shoes, or the style of the traditional hand-stitching that finished them off? I mean, unless that pushes the plot forward, I seriously doubt it’s something I need to know to enable me to enjoy the book. I skip all this type of stuff in books—there’s not enough time in my day or patience in my soul to read about the handstitchedness of a chap’s shoes. I doubt I even need to be told the hero is wearing shoes—I think it’s pretty much taken as read that he or she is wearing shoes, don’t you? Unless you’re the author or Kinky Boots or some other shoe-related plot, I don’t think it’s useful or helpful.

I don’t do a lot of research for my novels. Well, that’s not strictly true. If it’s something that interests me, I can waste hours on it, but if I’m purely trying to find out about something ‘ordinary’ then I can take it or leave it. I nip in, check the fact, and nip out again. Then I try to drip-feed it into the story if relevant–a little here, a little there.

As a writer mainly of murder mysteries, I know more than I really need to about methods of killing, about the human body after death, about the psychology of a killer—those are the things that intrigue me. My search history on my computer is enough to make a grown man blanch. But I try not to crowbar it all into my story except where it’s relevant.

As my main character in the Dottie books is ‘involved’ in the fashion industry, and because of personal interest, I spend quite a lot of time researching styles, technology relating to fabric production, and the mechanics of getting a frock to a customer from drawing board to shop assistant. And I’ll admit, quite a bit of this does get put into the book: readers have told me they enjoy the clothing details.

A lot of my research is conducted online, of course, as so much of everything is done these days. But any time I go out, I look for architectural features or cultural ideas that could come in useful in a book. I take photos of everything when I go out. (Or used to, back in the day when going out was a thing we all could do).

I’ve got tons of books too, on fashion history, cultural history, domestic and social history, and even on forensics.

For my research into designer brands—I’m not a designer brand kind of girl—for my Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy, I basically scanned Harrods website and selected the most expensive (insert item of choice here) I could find on their pages and awarded it to my protagonist. But those books have been around for the best part of ten years now, so may well be a bit out of date.

So if you plan to write a book and need to do some research, or if like me you are simply really nosy, here are my top favourites for online research:

Google maps – you can look around any town, not just in the UK but many other countries. Fancy a stroll around the streets of southern France? No problem. Want to drive through Warsaw? Easy peasy. Get a feel for the places you write about and see the real life layout (even if from two years ago) of your location. You can also get an approximate journey time and route all laid out for you. I love the internet!

Timeanddate.com – create yourself a printable or downloadable calendar from 1926. Or any other year from history. Want to know when there was a full moon in the Victorian era? No problem. Was Easter Sunday in 1958 in March or April? When was sunset or sunrise on a particular day? It’s all here. Super useful.

Wikipedia – yes everything seems to be on Wiki – but use with caution and try to verify the information here on other sites too, to ensure accuracy.

Want old street maps of London? Try maps-of-london.com

You can also get loads of useful information from police websites, every police service has them.

Newspapers online – so much useful material there.

The Victoria and Albert museum has a wonderful website. And no doubt other museums have, too. We’re all online nowadays, aren’t we?

Britainexplorer.com has information on interesting places. I used it to find out about a particular country house with priestholes or secret passages.

https://britainexplorer.com/listing/harvington-hall-priest-holes-and-hides/

Another time, I needed to know about everyday life in Britain in the 1930s, and researched telephones. Now we take a phone for granted, but in the 30s they were still pretty new and very much the preserve of the well-to-do. This blog post from italktelecom.com was very helpful

https://www.italktelecom.co.uk/blog/a-brief-history-of-the-home-telephone

And when Dottie got her first car in The Thief of St Martins, I needed to know all about motoring in Britain in 1935. Check out this:

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/what-is-designation/heritage-highlights/englands-first-filling-station/

But if you take away anything from this, I hope it is, it’s easy to find out information you need, but use it carefully, don’t overwhelm your reader with information that is perhaps interesting to you but not actually needed.

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Reflections on a visit to an exhibition

I couldn’t find an image featuring a red garment, so in my book, the mantle is in shades of green.

No I haven’t been to an exhibition. I have barely been out of the house for seven weeks! So I’m trawling through my old blog posts and notes to find something to rehash ahem, to look at from a new perspective.

Back in January 2017, I was about to start writing book 2 of the Dottie Manderson mysteries. The book was called The Mantle of God, and featured an ancient clerical vestment, a mantle, that is to say, a kind of cloak for priests. This topic had been triggered by a TV documentary I saw about Medieval English Embroidery, called Opus Anglicanum (English Work), that was on sometime over Christmas I seem to think. Anyway, a bit of research on the old interweb showed me that the V & A museum in London were holding a special exhibition, so thither went I post haste. Actually it was by Midland Trains but anyway…

I had to see it for myself. The enthusiasm of the narrator/presenter of the documentary (which I’ve forgotten the title of, and also the name of the presenter – I wish I’d made a note) made it seem so relevant, so real. Of course, life gets in the way sometimes, and in fact the exhibition was almost over so I nearly missed it but I am so glad I finally made it.

Due to it being the off-season, the number of visitors wasn’t quite as large as usual, and the organisers were happy to allow everyone to wander around and browse to their hearts’ content, and also due to the exhibition being busy but not cheek-by-jowl crowded, I was able to perch on a bench and gaze fondly at the Butler Bowden Cope, which was the main item I had come to see ‘in the flesh’, amongst many other copes, mantles, chasubles, altar cloths and more. Being a writer, of course I had come armed with notebook and pen (and bought several more in the gift shop). I was able to sit and make notes without feeling a need to hurry along and make way for others. The items were fabulous, far beyond what I had expected, and beautifully displayed. Here is a little of what I felt and noted:

‘The red velvet background was, as I expected, greatly faded away to a soft, deep pinky red although here and there it remains fresh and vibrant, and the threads of the velvet fabric were worn and even almost bare in places. As is typical, tiers of Biblical scenes and characters are interspersed by smaller tiers of angels, and twining branches form vertical barriers between sections.

‘The figures are more or less uncoloured now, but their hair still shines softly gold or silver, and here and there a vivid patch of blue cloth has retained its glorious colour. Lions peer between branches of oak, their heads realised by spirals of tiny pearls, for the main part still intact after, what, almost 700 years? 700 hundred years – I can hardly believe it.

‘Actually, I feel rather in awe. Of the creators, their skill, and even of the measure of inspiration they enjoyed, and the careful, devoted execution of the work: it all touches me, and I feel grateful, even tearful as I look at these beautiful garments and draperies. Who knows how long it will be possible to move these often fragile items and take them to other audiences? And then, when they are gone… all we will be left with will be photographs and facsimiles. Somehow it isn’t enough just to go and look, I feel a need to record my experience, to capture it for the future.’

As you can tell, I was lost in the moment. As were–I noticed–almost all the other visitors.

The cafe, too, is well worth an hour of contemplation! The stunning blue delft tiles on the walls, the lovely ceiling and windows… Entrance to the main part of the museum is, as ever, free, but the specialist exhibitions such as the Opus Anglicanum, have to be booked and paid for. But this is surely a once in a lifetime opportunity, so I certainly didn’t mind paying the price of £12. I also spent an age sitting in front of the permanent exhibition in the hall of Flemish tapestries. Absolutely beautiful – and HUGE.

When Mantle of God came out, a couple of people said that the story was far-fetched – that no one would be prepared to sacrifice their lives to protect a clerical vestment, or to hand a piece of it down through the generations, protecting it the way I suggested in my book. But I based my idea on real evidence: the presenter discussed a similar item –  a mantle, that had at some point been cut into four pieces and later–much later–the pieces had been restitched to create one whole garment again.

So I felt there was every possibility that a few loyal families could between them take and hide one piece of a mantle. If the worst happened surely at least one piece of the holy relic would survive? They were taking their lives in their hands for their faith.

Remember, in those days, Britain was Catholic, Protestant, then Catholic, then Protestant again. It was so incredibly dangerous to be caught on the wrong side of the faith-fence by your enemies. Literally having a tiny fragment of a priest’s garment on your premises could mean death. Churches that had been beautifully decorated Catholic places of worship were white-washed–the paintings and murals often not discovered until hundreds of years later. If found, the ornaments and attributes of mass were destroyed, or plundered for the treasure chests of royalty. There’s a reason they had priests-holes in those big old houses.

If you are curious and want to read a wee bit of The Mantle of God: Dottie Manderson mysteries book 2, you can click here to go to that page.

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World building

 

World building. Of course only sci-fi writers and fantasy writers do that, don’t they? Don’t they?

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Every time you write fiction, you build a world. I could even come up with arguments to support this idea regarding non-fiction, but this is my fiction writing site so I won’t do it here. But yes, every fictional work is set within a created world, regardless of genre. You might write contemporary fiction, set in world very much like our own, and peopled with characters very much like ourselves. But it is still not the same as the world you see outside your window. It is an interpretation (one of many) of that world, with elements missing or removed or emphasised, whether deliberately or unwittingly. Sometimes we choose to ignore certain aspects of the world around us, sometimes it’s just that our viewpoint doesn’t enable us to see or understand what is there. Whatever the reason, we are essentially engaged in the creation of a new world as we write our story.

Which gives us a lot of freedom, actually. We can have whatever we like because our world can be whatever we say it is. I write murder mysteries. Some of those are set ‘now’ and some are set in the past. But whenever they are set, I have to sit in front of my computer screen and visualise the world of the story in order to make it come alive for my readers. I have a responsibility, in fact, to make the world of my story real for everyone else. Otherwise they won’t buy into my premise, they won’t get absorbed into the story and they will chuck my book aside and complain, ‘huh, I just didn’t find any of that believable.’ And I don’t want that.

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So whether you write romance, action, sci-fi, fantasy with wizards or fantasy with werewolves, detective fiction of any kind, set in any era, or if you write erotica, drama, or children’s fiction, you need to build a world for your reader which is engrossing and utterly absorbing, and which fits the story as if it wasn’t created at all but just sprang to life fully formed. Can you imagine Harry Potter set in any other world? Lord of the Rings in any other landscape? Remember those stories of our childhood where rabbits and mice live in houses in tree trunks with little round windows, and sat in comfy chairs beside roaring fires? The fact that we can still picture all of these images is a tribute to the compelling creativity of their authors. We, as readers, believed it all.

When my character Cressida Barker-Powell-Hopkins flings wide one of the many doors to her copious wardrobes, I have to show her huge range of designer clothes, even though I’ve never had designer clothes myself, and know little of fashion, cheap and practical, or expensive and exclusive. I’ve never hated anyone so much I’d like to kill them, especially not my mother-in-law: quite the contrary, my mother-in-law is lovely. I’ve never lived in a small village, or in a huge house, or had servants. I don’t even drive. I’m not slim enough or fit enough to climb on top of a garage roof and get into a house through the bathroom window to sneak poison into foodstuffs in the kitchen of my nemesis. But Cressida is, and does.

When I get into Cressida-mode, and turn on the computer, or I take up my notebook and pen, it is like opening the band Day (3)edroom curtains on a new world, a world where all these things are possible, but only if seen through the eyes of my character. I must be her, and see with her eyes the world around her, which she inhabits. As the Bible quotation goes ‘in which we live and move and have our being’.

In my new series, the Dottie Manderson mysteries, (not yet available) the stories are set in the 1930s, and so I had to think about everything – furniture, fashion, idioms and culture, style, attitudes, historical setting, technology, travel, pastimes, work and education. Everything. You might think it’s not a problem, that to a certain extent you can ‘wing it’ and just start writing, filling in any gaps later.

But I ran into problems immediately. If you take a look at my WIP Night And Day page on this site, you will see why. I was immediately stumped by terminology (lounging pyjamas, mannequin), by the mechanics of getting my character from A to B – were taxis horse drawn in the 1930s – hint: no! Would a young woman of good family gone about on her own late in the evening? Hint: no! By what was on at the theatre (the song!) – in fact that’s why I had to change the era of my book – because it was originally set in the 1920s, too early for the song I wanted to use.

When Dottie steps out of the theatre into the London of November 1933, we all need to go with her, and peeping over her shoulder, we need to see what she sees, the dark rain-drenched streets, the tall buildings, the streetlamps which provide such inadequate illumination. We as readers are faced with a newly created, fresh-minted world, and it needs to feel authentic.