How to research a novel

Claire Scobie describes the birth of her second book – and offers some tips for would-be novelists.


The metal rattrap was large and sat on the cornice like an ornament.

‘What’s that for?’ I asked the Indian porter.

‘Rats,’ he said, putting down our bags.

My husband and I were in a temple town in Tamil Nadu and all other hotels were full. Inside our lacklustre room the smell of mothballs wafted from the drains. As we left for dinner I questioned the receptionist further.

‘No rats here, madam.’ He feigned surprise. Only in the hotel next door.’

When we came back that evening the trap had gone. But the rats hadn’t. My husband spied a large hairy creature scuttling across the bathroom floor. Thankfully he only told me after we’d checked out – of the aptly named Ratney Residency in Madurai.

Sharing my room with a rat is just one of many things I’ve done in the name of research. For my second book, The Pagoda Tree, set in eighteenth-century India, I’ve also ridden on a bullock cart, met a prince and driven all night from Delhi to Pushkar in search of the perfect crumbling palace. I’ve trespassed and been chased by a fist-waving security guard; had my breast groped, once; had a parrot read my fortune, twice; eaten with my fingers off a banana leaf, lots. Most enjoyable of all, I’ve worn a sari.

When doing fieldwork for my first book, Last Seen in Lhasa, there was another groping episode. That time I was in a remote mountainous region in Tibet, walking for weeks with a tribal group. All the women were flat-chested and on two separate occasions, a young porter poked my breast rather innocently – as if to check it was real. In India, the incident fell into the euphemistic category of ‘eve-teasing’. This makes it sound benign. Here we name it as it is – sexual harassment.

The major difference between investigating a travel article compared to a book is the amount of stuff you need to know. And the length of time it takes to find out. Of course I didn’t need to go to Tibet seven times to write my travel memoir. The first few trips I went as a journalist, only later transforming it something longer. But researching my first novel required a different approach. This time I wasn’t writing about characters, I was writing as characters – namely a young temple dancer or devadasi named Maya.

English novelist Sarah Waters once described how her characters seemed to ‘come out of the mist’ of the historical material once she’d done enough. But how much is enough? Kate Mosse (Labyrinth, Citadel) says she spends three-quarters of the time it takes her to write a novel doing the research. I resolved to follow Louis de Bernieres’ advice not to research too much after he became bogged down in Turkish history when writing Birds without Wings.

I started in all the obvious places: online, Google books, Google scholar; in libraries. I had chosen to set my novel in the mid-1700s because there was a possibility of exchange between East and West and the cross-cultural relations and conflicts would provide great tension for the plot. So from the outset I knew that the India Office Records in the British Library in London would only provide part of my story.

I spent numerous weeks there over the four years working on the book and my favourite place to write and read was in the cavernous Rare Books Room.

Disappointingly I didn’t have to wear white gloves to look at some of the works I requested. Many had thick yellowing pages and were written in faded ink. I do admit getting a touch of ‘archive fever’ though when reading an original diary and imagining the person who wrote it. It made history real and brought the past streaming into the present.

While I learned much about the English in India, there was little on Indian women – even less on temple dancers. In general archives are full of sources written by the victors – usually men. In my novel I was trying to show the slant of histosy – history from the other side.

My four trips to the sub-continent helped fill the gaps. I adopted a dual approach: in libraries and the ol’ journalistic trick of ‘following your nose’. First stop was the palace library in Thanjavur, where the effable Mr Perumal ensured regular cups of chai as I read dusty manuscripts; then a raft of libraries in Chennai. The most fruitful was the Adyar Library, set in a rare patch of greenery. The man at the front desk was a stickler for rules and said I needed a letter of request to join. An elderly lady overrode him and allowed me in, as long as I was barefoot and didn’t plug in my laptop, ‘too much electricity use. Each time I went back the rules changed but it was worth it for the discovery of some rare eighteenth century Tamil texts.

Just like when I am following the breadcrumbs of an article, I also made contact with local reporters. I visited Chennai’s eminent historian, Mr Muthiah, sat in on classical dance classes. interviewed a Tollywood – the Tamil version of Bollywood – star and hung out with the Queen of Higginbothams’. With her smeared black-kohl eyes and haphazard sari, this lady had worked for decades at Higginbothams bookshop, a Chennai institution. She knew everyone and loaded me up with books.

All of this intellectual research was shaping the historical canvas for my novel. But I still needed to get a sense of how my characters lived and breathed. For this I did ‘history with my feet. In Thanjavur I retraced the steps that my fictional character Maya would have walked. I saw the inscription on the walls of the eleventh-century ‘Big Temple’ detailing the names and addresses of 400 devadasis brought there for its inauguration. I walked along West Main Road where these women lived.

In Chennai I visited Fort St George where the East India Company established their base and my character Thomas arrived as a young clerk. I located one of the few eighteenth-century ‘garden houses’ that hasn’t been demolished for redevelopment. As I criss-crossed this chaotic sprawling city, each rickshaw ride became more terrifying than the last. On my last night, an early monsoonal downpour hit as we were crossing a flyover. There were no windscreen wipers and the rickshaw driver could see nothing ahead. All around traffic screeched to a halt as the water levels rose. The man revved up the engine and hammered it home, squeezing between buses, bumping through potholes. As he pulled up outside my guesthouse, I cheered. In India you can be grateful for the small things – even rat traps have their uses.

5 Tips on Researching a Book

1. Be prepared for the long haul

When you are used to writing articles to a deadline the shift to writing longer pieces can be liberating – and daunting. You have to devise systems and tricks to keep you writing during the slow times. I’ve found the writing software Scrivener invaluable. It’s more user-friendly than Microsoft Word as you combine all research and writing in one project.

2. Write as you research

Obvious but too often writers feel like they have to know everything first. If you don’t know how your character physically travelled from A to B, get her there anyway and then work out later if they travelled in a pony and cart, a carriage or a Morris Minor.

3. Create your own research system

Whether it’s the old-fashioned card index, post-it notes in books, photographing sources with your I-phone or a spreadsheet, keep a note somewhere of the titles of every book, page reference and any quotes as you go. Update regularly. If necessary use a referencing system like Endnote – useful if you have an extensive bibliography and footnotes.

4. Create your own personal deadlines

Schedule each ‘to-do-section’ in your calendar and block out periods of time. Be realistic. Give yourself extra days for the tricky bits. If giving yourself a word-length target – say, to write 1,000 words a day – is counter-productive then set yourself a time-based target of two hours. Write as much as you can during that time, with no distractions.

5. Enlist help from experts

Just as you call upon an expert for a choice quote in an article, contact people who know your subject better than you do. Interview them, ask them to recommend the best books, ask them to fact-check key sections. Librarians and archivists are particularly helpful.

And finally… bribe yourself. Your favourite cake. A treat. But only if you finish the section you’ve set yourself for that day.

The Pagoda Tree is published by Unbound.

 

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