In which I think about research and try to get better at talking about the book

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I am now 18000 words into novel number 2. This is particularly exciting because about half of those words have been bashed out in the last ten days or so, marking an stratospheric increase in the pace of progress. It also means that I’m having to get my head around the new challenges of book 2, as compared to book 1.

Book 1 was set between 2002 and 2013, and occurred entirely in places where I have actually lived. There was a tiny bit of research involved in making one character, a mathematician, sound like he knew what he was talking about, but that came down to getting a couple of books from the library and reading them. Not too onerous, even for a naturally workshy animal like myself.

With book 2, however, I’ve set a whole section of the story in 1967. Now 1967 isn’t like 1867 or 1267. We’re not into massively unrecognisable “past is another country” territory, but we are ten years before I was born. I’ve shifted into writing about stuff that I don’t remember, and I didn’t live through.

Even though it’s only 46 years in the past, there’s a surprising amount that I don’t know. I need to find out about homes for unmarried mothers, and the Abortion Act, both of which require in-depth research. But it’s not just the big things that form stumbling blocks. In many ways it’s the smaller details that are trickier to make authentic. What did 17 year olds who wanted to look cool drink in 1967? Has the legal driving age changed since the 1960s? What did a pharmacist’s shop look like in a provincial town in 1967?

I’ve tried to make it a little bit easier for myself by setting this part of the story in a place I know really well – the town where I grew up. That’s tricky, in its own way, too. I have to keep checking when certain buildings were built, when they started being used for a particular function, whether it was possible to walk directly from a to b via that route in 1967, as it was in 1987 when I was growing up. Now you might say that that doesn’t matter, that you can fiddle with those details in the name of fiction. And I would say you were right, but, as the writer, I feel like I need to know which details I’m altering and which are absolutely right.

So be warned, any of you who were bright young things in the mid-late 1960s, expect to get badgered with lots of inane questions about your youth when next we meet. And please accept my apologies in advance for how completely annoying that is likely to become.

The other writing challenge I’m working on at the moment, is trying to get better at talking about my work. Writing a novel is such an unbelievably solitary experience. You find yourself living in your own head with only made-up people for company for big hunks of time. Those made up people are often delicate, and prone to damage if brought out and exposed to critical gaze too early or too often. (More thoughts on that quandary here.)

And when you’ve written the thing you have to go out and try to sell it. You have to be able to explain what it’s about in as few, and as interesting, words as is possible. You also have to be able to talk to friends at dinner parties, and in bars, without running back to your husband and hiding when they ask about your writing. Not that I do that. At all. Ever. Very often.

I do find the ‘talking about it’ part of writing incredibly difficult though, simply because you spend so long writing and creating a world, that then discussing it with other people feels like stepping out of the writing bubble into a dark and jagged place where people might tell you that it sounds crap. And that is a wee bit scary. So I’m going to try to offer you a very occasional blog about what I’m writing as a sort of gateway process into actually talking about it to real physical human people. This was the first one. I hope you enjoyed.

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10 thoughts on “In which I think about research and try to get better at talking about the book

    Vivienne said:
    February 13, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    You want to watch that recent series that was on BBC that went back in time with families living out in different decades of history. It would give you a real insight into living during those years. I can’t for the life of me remember what it is called. Well done on getting so far with your book.

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      alisonmay responded:
      February 13, 2013 at 12:49 pm

      Thanks for the suggestion. I think I remember the series you mean – I can’t remember the title either, but I know the one you mean x

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    Vivienne said:
    February 13, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    Just hit Twitter to find out what it was called – Turn Back Time. It had a whole episode on the 60’s.

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    Polly Robinson said:
    February 13, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    Hi Alison, how interesting to see that you want to research the days in which I was growing up ~ I could give you anecdotal evidence of what it was like in the 60s as one who was there (!) For example, pharmacies were referred to as chemist’s shops in those days, you’d have been looked at slightly askance if you asked where the nearest pharmacy was … the ‘posh’ drink of the day was Pimms, numbered according to the content. We didn’t seek to look ‘cool’, but were keen to be up to date and not old-fashioned.

    The legal driving age was 17 as now but it was the year that saw the Introduction of the Legal Drink Drive Limit:

    The Road Safety Act of 1967 introduced the first legal maximum blood alcohol (drink driving) limit in the UK. The limit was set at a maximum BAC (blood alcohol concentration) of 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood or the equivalent 107 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of urine. It became an offence to drive, attempt to drive or be in charge of a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration that exceeded the maximum prescribed legal limit.(http://www.drinkdriving.org/drink_driving_information_uklawhistory.php (retrieved Feb 2013)

    I’d be more than happy to talk to you about the 60s. Bring it on! 🙂

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    Mum said:
    February 13, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    Hi Al,
    Just to say not only are you talking about a time before you were born, but there are lots of us about old enough to know if you get it wrong – you have been warned. On the other hand, they do say “If you can remember the sixties, you weren’t really there…..”

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    Anita Chapman (@neetswriter) said:
    February 13, 2013 at 6:50 pm

    Hi Alison, I can completely identify with what you’re talking about and have written about this on my blog before. Most writers seem to refer to their own experiences for Book 1. I probably subconsciously did this because I was focusing on learning how to write a novel. I did do some research on WW2 in Italy, but I knew quite a lot about it from university. With Book 2, I’m researching the eighteenth century and have asked myself similar questions such as: what would this person have for breakfast and would they get it or would a servant bring it to them? And then where would they eat it? And what would they be wearing? And what is their relationship to the other servants….I think the only way is to immerse myself in the eighteenth century for a while and try to absorb these bits of info, looking up what I need to know as I write. Best of luck with Book 2!-it sounds interesting. Hope to see you at the RNA Summer Party and I look forward to more posts about writing-always enjoy them.

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    Gilli Allan said:
    February 17, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    Hi Alison – well I was there and have strong memories of the 1960s. It always annoys me when writers who should be old enough to remember, get very basic facts about the 60s badly wrong. For instance, mini skirts. I went to art school in 1965 so I am well placed to remember what groovy girls were wearing. Mini skirts were FIRST shown on the french catwalks in 64 but it was in the UK where street fashion (and trendy designers) really took up the style and ran with it. But the skirts were only 4 inches above the knee at that time and not generally seen on the street and in high-street shops until 1965. Skirts didn’t become really short until several years later. Ironically at a time when long hippy type fashion was also establishing. I don’t know anything about homes for unmarried mothers but I do know that ‘let it all hang out’ free love was more talked about than engaged in. There was still a stigma about sleeping around and nice girls didn’t go on the pill. I don’t know what was trendy to drink, but I drank whisky! (and still do)

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    Judy said:
    February 17, 2013 at 3:03 pm

    Well I was a nice girl and I did go on the pill at 17 in 1967! But jeez it was hard to get. My GP refused my request and sent me to the FPA which had a fortnightly session for ‘engaged couples’ at which it was the luck of the draw whether you got a kind doctor or one who’d send you away.

    A few of my schoolmates got pregnant and were allowed to stay on till their uniforms no longer fitted. Most went to mother-and-baby homes far from the eyes of the neighbours and the babies were adopted. It still makes me cry to hear of girls who’ve been re-united with their children years later.
    Good luck with the book. And btw, don’t forget these things are very regional. Mini-skirts and the pill were way ahead in London compared to the provinces. I was a SW London girl and by ’67/8 was buying all my clothes from Biba and Bus Stop but the north wasn’t so advanced – I completely shocked my Lancashire relatives with my short skirts and Cathy McGowan haircut.

    Also – my fancy drink of choice would have been vodka and orange (or lime). Pimms was posh and summery, I’d say.

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    annestenhouse said:
    February 19, 2013 at 6:19 pm

    Hi Alison, I’m struggling with an exact moment question in my 2nd novel. i know a building was used for something from a particular date and that it stopped being used, but cannot find out when. I’m on the brink of changing the name of the street. It’s a trade-off between verisimilitude and your story. I want to go with my story.
    I was a teenager in the 60s in Midlothian. I remember lots of orange and olive green walls. Cocktail sticks in half grapefruit with cheese cubes, pickled onions and bits of pineapple were the height of sophistication. I didn’t go in pubs and was always at a loss what to ask for if in the Uni – that was not uncommon. Flared jeans were very popular.

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