A big part of the joy of writing is research. Frankly, while I was at college, doing either A-Levels or my degree, I thought the opposite. It was a drag, reading through books, finding quotes, doing some kind of apparently relevant experiential work to base an essay or dissertation on. I really couldn’t be bothered, but that might have more to do with my lack of interest in what I was studying, than the actual process of research.
I’m a firm believer in the phrase ‘write what you know’. Like I say to many of the students at the creative writing sessions I run at schools across the country, this doesn’t mean write about your day at school, or what you had for lunch, what you saw on TV. What it means (to me at any rate) is this: DO YOUR RESEARCH.
For me, the whole process can be addictive. It’s an excuse to buy books, to scour through bizarre texts, buy random stuff off ebay. It is also a great reason to get off your arse and do something a bit different. Research has, for me, included skydiving, endless hours reading about weaponry, taking up Krav Maga so I would have a better idea of what an actual fight was like (I wrote a scene a few years back that a friend, who had a better understanding of violence than I, told me would have the main character dead within the first two sentences!) I’ve trawled my own background, drawing upon my own hobbies of archery, shooting, mountaineering. I’ve interviewed all manner of interesting folk. And, last weekend, I did something I’ve never done in my life: I went to a Psychic Night.
It would be easy to have ended that last sentence with an exclamation mark, as though to say, ‘what fun’ and ‘it’s a bit silly’ and ‘don’t worry, I didn’t take it seriously’. The fact is, if I went along thinking any of that, I’d have tainted my research. I needed an open mind, wanted to take everything in, and record it accordingly.
It was fascinating. The evening began with some relaxing music, played wonderfully on a wooden flute affair. You know that relaxing CD music you find in shops selling crystals? It was that, but considerably better. Following this, we went straight into astrology.
I, like everyone else I’m sure, has checked out their star sign. I’m not sure I’ve ever got anything for it, but I’ve always been interested in the idea that for 1000s of years the human race has pondered the stars and considered their influence on our tiny lives. The conviction of the astrologer I honestly couldn’t doubt. He was down to earth, wasn’t wearing feathers or tie-dye, and didn’t make me want to immediately punch him in the face. And his delivery was a lot of fun, too. Believe in it? That wasn’t the point – I was interested in finding out why people did, not whether I did or not. Next, we had palmistry.
If I was expecting Gypsy Rose Lee, I was way off the mark. The man in front was, it turns out, an ex-school’s inspector. He was funny, he had an address book that was a who’s-who of celebrities, and he knew his subject inside and out. There was no mysticism to what he was saying, if anything it was very matter of fact. And hearing how a person’s hand could tell a story… what’s not to love about that? Because surely our hands do, to a degree, carry scars of the lives we lead. Next came Tarot.
In much the same way, we were presented with a man who wasn’t in any way hippy-fied. He just did tarot. People in the audience picked cards, he explained them, job done. Were they looking for meaning in what he was saying? Was it generalisations? Again, I didn’t care – this was research. And it was fascinating! Then, after a break, came the moment everyone had been waiting for: mediumship!
There is something intrinsically fascinating about the notion of being able to see or contact or commune with the dead. Where would Horror be without it? What I noticed immediately the moment the medium took the stage, alongside a psychic artist she works with, was the upping of anticipation in the room. Cynic or not, everyone there wanted the medium to speak to them. Yes, even me. Why wouldn’t I? I was utterly fascinated about what she was saying to others, how she was doing it, the impact it had. Again, she was compelling and clearly believed with her whole spirit that what she did was real. As did the man on the same row as me when she handed him a painting by the psychic artist and he recognized it straight away as his own father. As did the girl who’s grandfather came through when the medium mentioned a paratrooper who liberated Belsen.
I left the evening no more convinced or otherwise in what went on, but as I said, that wasn’t the point. I had experienced something I’d never done before. I’d met people and spoken about things that were out of my comfort zone. And I’d come away with such a wonderful stack of ideas and thoughts and pictures and notes that I’m now almost at a loss as to what to do with them!
As writers, we must surely maintain an open mind. We need to see the world through the eyes of others if we are to ever actually present a true picture of a character and how the interact with it. Our role is the storyteller. We present ideas and thoughts and experiences and events and it is up to the reader to then draw their own conclusions. If we attempt to write from the perspective of a closed mind, I’m not sure we can ever do our job as truly as we want to.
I love writing. I love the research. I love finding out about stuff I would never usually consider in a normal, everyday kind of job. And I love forcing myself to keep my mind open enough to absorb something that might, some day, help me produce a book I’m proud of. Oh and yes, you bet I’d go again!