Author and Editor Vrinda Pendred shares how doing a little research can make the difference between writing a STORY and creating a reading EXPERIENCE.
It’s said that when you open a new book, you are entering into an unspoken agreement to suspend your disbelief and fall deep into the arms of the author’s illusion. But like any good contract, there are two parties involved, and it’s up to the writer to hold up their end of the deal.
Two years ago, I read an independently published young adult fantasy novel that had a beautiful cover, an intriguing title and an enticing synopsis. Halfway through the story, there was an overly long journey from London to France, which went a little like this:
- She caught the train from ‘London’ and was immediately speeding through countryside. Anyone who’s actually been on this journey will know the train from London to continental Europe is the Eurostar, which leaves from St Pancras station, in the centre of a vast urban landscape.
- This train finished its journey at the ‘end of England’ – no town was named. There was nowhere for the girl to stay, and she was frightened she was stranded in the middle of nowhere. In fact, the port for travelling across the English Channel to the continent is in Dover, a town renowned for its famous white cliffs. It’s a hugely popular tourist attraction, with several hotels and places to eat, not to mention how many people go in and out of Dover to get over the Channel. Oh, and people live there.
- I should also note that the Eurostar doesn’t STOP in Dover. The whole point of the Eurostar is that its track carries on UNDER the water, through the Chunnel. Even when I used to live in Arizona, I knew this, as its construction made international news as a feat of engineering.
- Luckily, the love interest showed up and they took a boat across the Channel. The boat was rather small, when really you would catch a ferry large enough to carry cars over the water, if you choose not to travel by train. It was at a time of night none would be running, and they purchased ferry tickets from a man in a booth on the beach (there were no towering cliffs in this picture), as if it were a fairground attraction.
- Their journey over the water was so torrential that several people were sick all over the ‘boat’. I have never seen this happen in any of my experiences on the ferry.
- The journey took several hours, rather than the hour it actually takes.
- They landed in an unnamed location in ‘France’, with a landscape that bore no resemblance to the actual port in Calais. From there, they drove and were instantly in Paris, when Paris is miles south. The first person they met was a cliché baker named Pierre, dressed in black and white stripes. (Seriously.)
- They later travelled from Paris to Italy, but had to drive through several other countries first, because it seems the author didn’t realise Italy shares a border with France. Apparently, the difficulty in getting there was ‘all those mountains’. The author didn’t know there are motorways built through ‘all those mountains’ (foothills of the Alps, by the way).
Okay, okay, enough with the criticism, you say. It’s easy for me to make these points. I LIVE in England. I’ve BEEN on the Eurostar. AND the ferry. And I’ve made that drive into Italy.
But that’s the point: for anyone who knows, our unfortunate author’s story falls apart and becomes painfully laughable. That’s why I believe as authors, it’s our responsibility to educate ourselves about everything we choose to include in our writing.
We might write fiction, but even that has to hold some element of believability. That’s what elevates our writing from a fanciful story to an adventure that captures readers’ imagination so strongly, they can’t pull themselves out of our worlds until they finish the last page. It’s those little details that make silly sounding plotlines MATTER to us.
In this Internet era, there’s no excuse for not doing the research. The journey depicted by our example author wouldn’t take more than a few visits to Google Maps and some questions posted in Yahoo! Answers to work out. And if you’re serious about writing, you should be willing to put in the extra time to do things right. How can we publish our books and expect to gain an independent following if our stories are full of easily confirmed errors that make our readers shake their heads in astonishment at our laziness?
Besides, research is FUN. When I wrote my Wisdom series, I threw myself into a world of literature I’d never before thought to read. I spent two years immersing myself in ancient alien theory, alternative history and archaeology, ancient sacred texts, religion, philosophy, comparative mythology – the list goes on. It was a fascinating subject that opened my eyes to new ideas, right or wrong, and changed my perspective on the evolution of our whole society.
Plugging that research into the series was a new challenge. I had to think back to my old school days and organise my notes, write outlines, puzzle over solutions to questions those notes raised and fit them into those outlines, shape and reshape the ideas until they fit into the story. It was so exciting when it finally came together!
My research also extended to character development. Aidan Carnegie, in particular, took quite a lot of thought. I spent an hour trawling through lists of mythic Irish Celtic names and their meanings until I found one that matched his character. I knew I wanted him to be Northern Irish, so I read pages and pages about regional dialect and accent, slang and how to use it in daily conversation. I talked to people from the area and studied how they spoke. I wanted Aidan to grow up by the sea, so I looked on a map of Northern Ireland and chose Carrickfergus as his hometown. And if you went there, you’d find his family home; it’s real. I went on a property search website, looked at houses within five miles of Carrickfergus and sorted them to show the most expensive properties first – because Aidan’s family are wealthy. When I found the right house, I referred to the property photographs for all my visual description.
I believe that level of research is why so many readers have said in their reviews, ‘I don’t normally read sci-fi, but….’ I like to think I’ve been convincing in portraying the ideas and characters – and most of that is down to my extensive ‘outside reading’, listed in the lengthy bibliography included at the end of the last instalment of The Wisdom.
Whatever your book is about, try not to think ‘fiction’ means ‘anything goes’. Ask yourself how believable your story is. Is there anything you felt you were making up as you went along, without being sure of what you were saying? Did your characters ever go anywhere you’ve never been? Did they do something you’ve never done? How much did you research those places and activities before you wrote about them? If the answer is, ‘Not much,’ revisit those sections of the book. Look into things a little more deeply and add that depth to your story. It’s these ‘little’ things that make any book come ‘alive’.
Remember: your readers are signing away a few hours of their life to sink into your book. Make that sinking easy!
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Vrinda Pendred originally grew up in Arizona, but moved to England in 1999, where she now lives with her husband and their two children. She is the author of the YA fantasy series The Wisdom, available from all good ebook shops. Her first novel was The Ladder, a story about two friends learning to grow through their difficult childhoods and find the light that lies inside themselves.
Vrinda also runs a publishing house for writers with neurological conditions, called Conditional Publications. Their first book, Check Mates: A Collection of Fiction, Poetry and Artwork about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, by People with OCD, was released in 2010 (Kindle and paperback), with future books in the pipeline.
In addition to her writing, Vrinda also does freelance proofreading and editing, and tutors GCSE / A-Level English. She holds a BA Hons in English with Creative Writing, a Proofreading qualification with Chapter House, and has completed work experience with Random House.