Archive | June 2014

Research and the Art of Procrastination

I’m between novels at the moment. The last is written but still being read before new edits, and the next hasn’t yet been thought up. For the last two months I have dabbled with the idea of dredging up my two long-lost trunk novels and rewriting one of them, but my interest has waned somewhat. Why is this? Possibly because all the research I did for them at the time when I first wrote them has already been done. Boredom has set in and if I’m bored, I don’t want to pass that on to my readers.

For me, there’s something tremendously exciting about doing research for a new novel, and in many ways it may rival my enthusiasm for Setting. I’ve always said that a good story is a triangulation between three things – Characters, Plot and Setting – and that all three are equally necessary because two out of three will not do the job.

A strong triangle forms a good base, but if you want it to be a worthwhile structure, it needs a fourth element: Research. This addition doesn’t turn it into a square, but provides the extra dimension that makes a flat triangle stand up in 3D.

But what happens when you don’t yet have the first three elements of that golden 3D triangle? Where do you start the next project when you are totally, blissfully clueless and purposeless? Why, with research of course!

One way I like to research is to watch movies. This is my favourite form of procrastination and allows me to soak up the atmosphere of the time, whether in terms of place, period, clothing, music or language – it doesn’t matter which, all is grist for my mill.

Another way to research is to turn to my own bookshelves. Back in high school I received a book prize – A Newspaper History of South Africa by Vic Alhadeff. Recently I dug it out for inspiration. Among the many landmark historical incidents that make up South Africa’s chequered history, it is the smaller, bizarre stories that have always appealed to me, and right now I am enjoying exploring these in the hopes that something may spur me on to write a novel based on – oh, I don’t know – the phenomenon of Dr James Barry; the infamous Foster Gang; the shooting of the racehorse Sea Cottage; or the poisonous crimes of Daisy de Melker.

Dr James Barry was a female surgeon who lived her life as a man. She practised medicine in the British army in both India and the Cape Colony in the years following the Battle of Waterloo, during that infamous period of British colonial expansion. The Foster Gang perpetrated their crimes in Johannesburg around the time when South Africa was divided about whether to support England or Germany in the First World War. Sea Cottage was shot on the Durban beachfront by a petty criminal paid by a syndicate of gamblers in June 1966. And Daisy de Melker poisoned two husbands (allegedly) and her son (definitely) in Johannesburg between 1923 and 1932.

I’m researching all of these at once. Who knows – a connection between them may pop up somewhere before I have to admit that I might just be suffering from writer’s bombardment. That’s the opposite of writer’s block, by the way – so many stories, so little time to tell them.

What to do next, what to do…