I am absolutely delighted to host author Jill Downie as she talks about the joys of research. Her Moretti and Falla detective series are enormously popular and have received a great deal of critical acclaim. You should check her out at http://www.jilldownie.com (I know you'll do that anyway once you read this post). On top of everything, Jill is a wonderful person.
The Joys of Research
Is there a writer anywhere who doesn’t like research? Maybe, but I have yet to meet one. Writers are like the elephant’s child in Kipling’s Just-So stories, curious by nature, and that can get them into some interesting, scary, unforgettable places in the real world and in that other real world: their imagination.
I have written both fiction and non-fiction in my life as a published writer, and there are more similarities than differences between researching the two. Both are about when, what, where, why and how – and, being there.
Except, if you are writing historical fiction, as I once did, being there only happens in the imagination. But you still have to get it right, or you’ll get a letter or an email to point out the error of your ways.
Apart from my mysteries, the only contemporary fiction I have written is the short story, the first form of writing I ever had published. The setting was the first community I lived in when I came to Canada, and I discovered afterwards there had been a mad rush to identify actual people in my characters. Hey, everyone, it wasn’t a short-story-à-clef, I protested. But no one believed me.
So, when I choose a name for the murderer, I tread carefully. Which brings me back to research.
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I made a really smart move when I chose the Channel Island of Guernsey, where I once lived, as the setting for my Moretti and Falla mysteries, because it took me back to a beautiful and unique part of the world. The first visit was after a number of years, much had changed, and I spent the time reacquainting myself with the place. In spite of those changes, which incIuded the island’s transformation into a wealthy offshore tax haven, the scenery was still dazzling, the old island families with their unique names – Falla, Bisson, Le Cocq, de Sausmarez and so on – were still very much part of the landscape. So, no wicked islanders – well, not identifiable ones, anyway.
John Nettles, former star of Midsomer Murders, who lived on Jersey while making the detective series, Bergerac, has found himself persona non grata after writing a well—researched account of the wartime occupation of the Channel IsIands. Some secrets are best left secret, some bodies best left buried. Or, at least, unrecognizable.
I always go on research trips with a game plan, so it doesn’t just turn into a vacation, but I remind myself to keep an open mind, and to be prepared for the unexpected to turn up. It so often does. Plots and plot twists, characters walking around corners into your life, unplanned encounters that take you into a whole new perspective are among the joys of research. I got the basic idea for the fourth Moretti and Falla while researching Blood Will Out, the third in the series.
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I used to love spending time in libraries and archives when on the hunt for a book. With the internet, my research life has been simplified, and maybe I regret that. But only a little.
I have been to the Yukon in search of a nineteenth-century journalist, served coffee and port by a white-gloved valet while interviewing a duke, and these were unexpected bonuses in my writing life. Best to be open to the unexpected, I have found.
So when my daughter asked, “Mom, have you ever thought of a story set in Las Vegas? I’m going on a business trip, why don’t you come?”
“Yes,” I said.
Being there. Nothing like it.
Everything Jill Downie can be found right here: https://www.dundurn.com/authors/jill-downie