The web of research

Have you ever stopped to wonder what the internet search history of a writer looks like?

As I was pootling along with my draft this week I couldn’t help but smile at the diverse directions my ongoing research is taking me in.


It’s not quite as extreme as my last novel, where the bulk of my online explorations were delving into the psychology of narcissism, manic depression and schizophrenia, not forgetting the murky world of electronic surveillance. Still, though, when writing a novel which (at least for the thirty thousand words I’ve written so far) is set in the 1970s and early 80s, it turns out there are an awful lot of gaps in my knowledge that need filling.

Most of them come from the fact that, having only been born in 1978, I have no personal experience of the little details of everyday life. Like, what were people called? What did they wear? Teenagers specifically? How did they do their make-up? Did they smoke? What did they drink at parties? What did they study for A-levels? When did they take their exams? When was the Walkman invented? What music did people listen to?

It’s all well and good talking to people who were around at the time, but I’m not just talking about general trends here – I’m talking about the specific aspects of fashion and popular culture that would have appealed to the blossoming characters I have been developing over the past few months, my two protagonists especially but the supporting cast as well.

Then there are the other details that anchor the world of my novel in time and place. The coordinates of my key locations, and the relation between them and the rise and setting of the sun (and the moon). The times of sunrise and sunset in summer, and any notable weather in between. Impossible to begin a novel in 1976 after all and not acknowledge the heatwave and the impact it had on peoples’ lives.

There was the politics too of course, and what it meant for peoples’ working days, as well as things like the prevalence of streetlights in a small seaside town.

Time and place aside, there are other things too I’ve found myself investigating to get up to speed with my characters’ interests and areas of expertise. The mechanics of butterfly stroke, for example. And the names of the different parts of a fishing boat. Not forgetting how to kill a mackerel.

It is all quite fascinating, and much as I’m trying to make sure I don’t get so completely sucked into the research that I fail to do any actual writing I can’t deny that I’m enjoying all the little bits of learning along the way. I know it doesn’t matter if not every little detail matches the facts, but if I’m having to make decisions anyway it’s nice to be helped along by the wealth of information that’s out there.

Remind me what people did before the internet again?


Writing Bubble

4 thoughts on “The web of research

  1. Rebecca Ann Smith

    I have so much respect for anyone writing historical fiction – whether it’s the late twentieth century or the middle ages. I have enough trouble getting my facts straight writing about the middle of next week. And at least with the future, you can make stuff up… Good luck with it – sounds like you’re enjoying the process.

  2. maddy@writingbubble

    Your research sounds fascinating! I think I would get totally drawn in and side-tracked if I had to do major research. And yes, how on earth did we cope before the internet?! Libraries and more face-to-face questioning of people would have been MUCH more time consuming than our friend google! Thanks for linking to #whatImWriting

  3. Chrissie

    Wow. Research is a nightmare isn’t it? I’ve only ever had to do heavy research on one book where I wrote about heart failure. I spoke to people on Twitter about their experiences and a couple of friends on Facebook who work for the NHS. Nothing can prepare you for how much you have to know if you’re writing some historical though. Te first novel I tried to complete (and my first NaNo) was based on being a teen in the 90’s and allowed me to indulge in music I love in my teen years. It was so hard remembering what life was like before mobile phones were around every day, or not having the Internet in our house. What did we do as teens (apart from phone each other on landlines and drink White Lightning in VAST quantities because it was the only thing we could get served?)
    I often wonder what someone would think if they looked at my internet history when I’m in the middle of being inspired by something.
    People spying on our history would never happen, right? (hahaha) x


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