Guest blog about a research battle

Thank you to Mai’s Musings for inviting me to post a guest blog, which you can read here:

A Research Battle (and my delightful day at the zoo)

 Every writer will tell you how important research is. It can make or break a story. A novel set in history needs the right context to make sense, and a character that isn’t well researched, isn’t always believable. My wife, who works in marketing and has spent a good portion of her career as a copywriter, once reeled off facts about peat to me. To be clear, that’s peat, the substance that accumulates in bogs and out on the moors. She’d spent a week researching it and, to her surprise, she ended up finding it fascinating (I didn’t).

So, when I started researching for my first novel, We Are Animals, I was excited. I wasn’t going to write about peat (or indeed any type of turf), I was going to write about animals. This was the kind of research I could get on board with.

Chapter one. A crab. Not any kind of crab though; a sand bubbler crab, the type of crab that rolls sand into balls whilst scouring the sand for food. You wouldn’t believe how much information there is out there about these crustaceans. I lost a whole morning. Chapter one includes the line:

‘In both directions, he saw several gatherings of bubbler crabs, all rolling the sand into tiny balls behind them. That’s what bubbler crabs do.’

Later in the chapter it says:

‘I’m sixty-four!’ said the man, as a small wave washed away hundreds of the bubbler crabs’ small balls of sand.

One morning of research, right there in two sentences. To be fair, those sentences weren’t all that I gained from that research, I also confused a group of friends in the pub as to why I kept trying to drop sand bubbler crabs into the conversation.

As the book progressed, I learnt about different types of fish, the various religious beliefs surrounding cows and the eating habits of cockroaches. I also got invited to the pub less frequently. When I found that a sub-plot in the book required me to write about otters and their parental relationships, I opened google and typed ‘Otters’…

I called to my son.

‘We need to go to the zoo. It’s for research purposes.’ It’s strange, he doesn’t normally show much interest in my writing…

It turns out that the otters at Bristol Zoo Gardens are brothers. Me and my son watched them together. When one was in the pond, they were both in the pond, when one was relaxing on the little island, they both were. They seemed inseparable. We didn’t learn much about their parental relationships, other than that they leave their mothers around the age of one. After that we researched chips and a small helicopter that moves if you put a pound in it.

The zoo offered a boar, a quail and a rat to add to the book. In this instance, the research had changed the narrative of the book. It’s nice when that happens. It feels productive. (Often, the narrative of the book dictates what you research, and that’s why I spent a month reading various memoirs of everyday life in Soviet Russia).

Eventually, I put the final full-stop on the last sentence of We Are Animals. I sat back looking at the screen. It was an odd feeling. I’d spent four years writing the document in front of me, and four years learning about animals. What would I do with my time now?

I opened google and typed ‘types of cockroaches’ again. I wasn’t ready to let go just yet.

Two hours later I sat next my wife on the sofa.

‘Did you know,’ I said, ‘cockroaches can survive a month without food, and can survive underwater for half an hour. They can hold their breath for up to forty minutes!’

I looked at her expectantly. Why wasn’t she sharing my enthusiasm?

‘Forty minutes?’ she asked and then thought for a second. ‘Did you know that peat can burn underground for over a hundred years.’

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