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Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Research for Writers

This issue we get down to the nitty gritty of novel writing, beginning with research. Obviously, if you are writing non-fiction, research is all important, but there are many facts and figures required for the average wide-appeal fiction title, and would-be writers are often unaware of the importance of getting these finer details in place before they start working on their project in earnest. Thanks to author Suzy Brownlee, who writes a children's series beginning with The Littlest Detective in London, and the soon-to-be-released The Littlest Detective in Paris, who helped us out with this.

Also in ISSUE 6 of Getting Published, a new column: Q?A, in which we address some of the questions we receive from you via our website. Keep the questions coming. Write to or follow the contact us link on our website.

But first, new writer and columnist, Elle Symonds, becomes a little too attached to her debut novel in 'Diary of a Newbie Novelist'.

#3 - In which my characters become my best friends, and we have sleepovers.

Sometimes, it's hard to explain the feelings achieved by writing. In the case of the very first novel I wrote, spending hours at the laptop tapping out my work of genius (ha!), what filled me was not only excitement, but desire - desire to finish it and finally get it out there. That was before I'd gained a publishing deal with Prospera, yet after each chapter I completed, I still felt a sense of hope. My efforts would pay off one day, right? And my character would be introduced to the world. Now that I have a publishing deal, the work feels somewhat different, in a good way, of course. Now I'm working towards the big day - the day in which I hand my manuscript over to my publisher and go, 'HERE IT IS!' Each page I type is a step towards release date. And even though there's a whole lot of work to get through before it even remotely arrives in completed form, there's even more of that ambition. However, this time, despite the fact I'm being published, there's something else that's keeping me glued to my laptop.

I think I'm in love with my main character. Don't give me that look - I don't love her in that way. Loving a fictional character would be silly, right? I mean, obviously I wouldn't say that out loud in a packed Waterstone's full of teens clad in 'Team Edward' shirts and kissing cardboard cut-outs, but you know what I mean. Yet, Abbie is slowly becoming my best friend. And I can't keep away from her. This past fortnight has been manic, with all kinds of hurdles being thrown my way (I god-damn hate it when 'real life' gets in the way). I've been feeling up, down, happy and in tears. But the light at the end of the tunnel has been not chocolate, not wine, but you guessed it, Abbie. Sadly though, Abbie dearest already has a best friend, so my status as potential BFF has already been ambushed. But I can live with that, I think . . . . . . but what's Kat got that I haven't? WHAT HAS SHE GOT? You see? This is what happens when you get too engrossed in your story. I'm sure I'm not the only one this has happened to. At least, I hope not, or I'll be paid another visit by those men with the special jacket.

This week in particular, I've been sneaking visits to the laptop at every possible opportunity to see what Abbie does next. Um, I mean, you know, write about what she does next. Just typing out her next misadventure works wonders in ridding my head of all the day's misfortunes. Just as I'm having a bad day, she can be having an even worse one. Right now, things are looking up for her . . . for a short while, anyway. She cheers me up. She keeps me entertained. And if I'm not with her, I'm scribbling in my journal about what's going to happen to her next. Of course, she's my creation - so is it weird to be imagining sleepovers and cinema trips with a person who only exists, thus far, in a Word document? Namely, someone you made up yourself? Hopefully not, given the following:

Reasons why I would love to be BFFs with Abbie Quinn: 1. I can relate to her total ass-over-tit moments.

Elle: 'Ha! You'll never guess what, I opened up this really personal email in work and pressed 'Print' accidentally and JUST MANAGED to stop it all being printed off right by the manager's desk. IT was horrendous.'

Abbie: 'Oh yeah? Well I just got photographed in a very revealing dress that I didn't want to wear but had to just to fit in with that whole fetish party and probably even did the whole Lady Gaga-style 'oh-is-that-my-crotch? Well-I-never' thing and just happened to end up on the front of a national paper. My PARENTS see that national paper.

Elle: 'Oh.' (Whispers) 'Always got to go one better than me haven't you?'
2. She's done the whole 'move to London and find a flatmate thing' that secretly I've always wanted to do.

3. She works for a tabloid magazine.

4. For entertainment value, she's equivalent to copious amounts of Ben & Jerry's. (Or Asda's finest. Your call.)

5. Plus, she is psychic. Yeah, THAT'S the clincher. Imagine being best friends with a psychic? And not the ones who sit at home in front of EastEnders wearing jangly bracelets and charging £3 per minute to guess things about you on the phone. A real, bona-fide psychic. Although to be terribly honest, she hasn't really mastered the whole 'deciphering visions' thing, yet . . . Elle: 'I dumped him! You said he would cheat on me!'

Abbie: 'Well yes. Yes, he was going to cheat on you. But it turns out I kinda misinterpreted that. He was going to cheat at Scrabble.'

Elle: 'I'm really, REALLY going to kill you off. There's a giant truck heading for the next chapter and it has your name on it.' Part of the fun of writing is exploring people and situations that you will never become, or are unlikely to find yourself in. Needless to say, after a particularly bad day, I can simply get lost in my book and imagine the hours away with my new psychic pal.

I'm just glad it's going to be a series. Saying 'The End' would be like saying: 'IT'S OVER AND WE CAN NEVER SEE EACH OTHER AGAIN!' to someone you're really, really fond of.

Or Ben & Jerry's. But no. Abbie will be staying for quite a while. Not even a fast-moving truck will get rid of her THAT easily . . .
Until next time,

x Elle.


Suzy Brownlee's new children's title, The Littlest Detective in Paris, is due out in May. Her series involves a motley cast of characters who end up in different countries. Here she outlines how she approaches research of a plot-driven story.

Writers write, or so the saying goes. Well, not all the time. Before they write, they research. As anyone who has sat down and delved into a good fiction title knows, part of what makes a story interesting is the information it brings to the reader. And some writers with previous careers have research in the bag: John Grisham brings his knowledge of law; authors such as Andy McNab or the late Dick Francis draw on work experiences as spies and jockeys respectively.

But what if you are writing a plot-driven story that is fairly generic in theme? Do you still need to research before you write?

The short answer, of course, is yes. Once you have a good synopsis you should know where your story is going, you need to take a good look at the places, industries and organisations that feature in your story, and find out more about them.

The reason for this is clear - if you don't know your subject it will show in your writing. For example, say you are writing about a girl who works as a model agent. Unless you are a model agent, you need to find out exactly how the talent agency business works. How? Well, the best way to research a place of business is to go and take a look for yourself. Most organisations are open to writers coming in and taking a look around. Compose a nice begging letter, requesting a visit on a particular day, and get yourself some background colour to add to your work. Once you have the basics, you can then play about on Google, find out facts and figures about your industry. Again, the more you know, the more interesting and informative your characters will be.

Now, I am not saying you should fill your fiction title with oblique statistical references. Fill your head with them instead, and keep them in mind as you write. For example, a model agent will need to know what constitutes a good commission; how much an advertising agency will pay for a model; what sorts of expenses they can legitimately charge, and so on. Once you have this sort of knowledge, it can seep into your writing naturally, without pounding the reader over the head.

Another plus point is that doing research can actually give you ways to expand your story and draw in subplots without going off point. Writing, in my view, is about lateral thinking, and research forces you to think about a subject from every angle.

If you write for children, this is especially important. For example, in my second book about Paris, I needed to know the layout of the Louvre, so that I could convey the path the bumbling Hench takes in getting to the Mona Lisa. Kids don't want to know the 'take a left as you come out of the Metro, the first entrance to the right, two security check booths' type of stuff. They want a fast moving story. So once I knew the layout, I could point my character in the right direction without alerting the kids to the notion of my directional accuracy.

Equally, research can provide ideas that you can then manipulate to suit your story. Before I wrote my Paris title, I read of a little English masterpiece that had been stolen a number of times throughout its 500-year history. I adapted that to my story by sending the masterpiece to Paris, and having my 14-year-old character steal it. Again, the basis of reality is there, but the kids don't need to know about it.

A final word for people who need a level of meticulous research that Google and a quick site visit won't be able to offer. Try the British Library first, then approach relevant organisations that deal with your subject. They often have libraries of their own, or at the very least people who have spent lifetimes working in the very field you require information about. For government departments and places like the Met, try the PR or Media offices, as they will quickly be able to direct you to people who are happy (and authorised) to help you.

Remember, research and the application of meaty knowledge will give your writing a depth that will not only make it readable, but saleable. Plus, you will, in all probability, gain some great anecdotes for book signings and readings into the bargain.
Good luck with it all,


The Littlest Detective in London is available via PayPal with free worldwide postage from our
website, or on Amazon or in the UK and Europe via your local bookstore. Suzy Brownlee's The Littlest Detective in Paris is due out May 31st, The Littlest Detective in the Land of the Rising Sun is due out early in 2011.

Questions aboout Publishing? Read on!

Q?A is a new feature that we will regularly include in our newsletter. Feel free to send your questions to us. You can ask anything, although we cannot give personal feedback about a specific work.

Q: I have an idea for a novel but am a really slow writer. Should I write the first three chapters and send to an agent? I figure that I will finish the novel by the time I get a bite.

Anicka P., Amersham, Bucks.

A. Well, Anicka, the short answer is no. There are two main reasons. Firstly, novels usually require a great deal of editing before you should even think of submitting them. This means you need to get to the end and re-read numerous times to make sure you have a coherent book that works on all levels (subplots, character development etc). Secondly, if you do get a query from an agent, you will lose all credibility if you cannot produce the whole work when asked.

Q: I have a question for author Nicky Schmidt. Is Jools in Naked in Knightsbridge based on someone she knows, or is she totally made up?

Maisey B., Manchester.

A: Hey Maisey, we spoke to Nicky who said as follows: 'Come on now, of course she is made up. I mean, what kind of fool would auction themselves off online in marriage? Now, if you don't mind, I have to get back to eBay.' You can take that as meaning it is entirely possible there is a lot of Nicky herself in Jools!

Q: I submitted a novel to a publisher (not you, sorry) months ago, and haven't heard anything. Should I give up?

John, Hackney, London.

A: Hi John. In a word, probably. It depends on the publisher, of course, but it may be worth checking their submission guidelines. Larger publishers don't accept unsolicited submissions at all, so it may have gone straight from the mail room to the intern's bin. Smaller publishers such as Prospera do accept them, but we have a caveat that if you haven't heard within eight weeks, take that as a no. The reason, of course, is the sheer amount of submissions make it impossible to reply promptly to everyone. Finally, it is possible that your submission got lost in the mail, but in our opinion, it's time to move on and submit elsewhere.

Q: I am worried that if I send my book idea to an agent or publisher they will steal it. Is there anyway to protect myself?

Rosalind, NYC, NY.

A: Rosalind, your written work is immediately copyright the moment you produce it, although there are various writers agencies both in the UK and USA that you can send a copy to if you are really worried about protecting yourself. To be honest, most publishers would not bother stealing a good idea if they can employ the person who came up with it to follow through. Publishers need authors to help sell their titles and taking an idea and passing it on to someone else would serve little purpose, particularly if they might get sued. In fact, most publishing contracts contain clauses that indemnify the publisher against the author doing just that themselves! Besides, a great book is more than just the basic plotline, it takes skill to make it something special.

Finally, it is worth noting that many writers come up with similar ideas, even similar titles, and in general these as standalone items are not immediately subject to copyright, so the point of difference is always in the work itself.

These answers are for entertainment purposes only and are not meant to be relied upon in a legal sense, or taken as professional or legal advice. We recommend you seek the advice of a lawyer for the resolution of specific issues.

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