Research is a key part of writing any novel and has always been something of a passion of mine. Whether it is researching the Anglo-Saxon world of 6th century England for my novel This Sacred Isle, or building an entire secondary world for my Tree of Life trilogy, I love digging down to establish key facts. Sometimes, this research takes the place of visiting actual historical sites or museums / galleries – often, though, my research is through non-fiction works (I am a regular customer at my local library!).
Often, I will use non-fiction books to confirm important details about the world in which my story takes place – for example, for This Sacred Isle, although it contains elements of fantasy, I very much wanted the setting to have a strong historical basis, such as the food people eat, their clothes, their weapons etc.
However, good non-fiction can also provide inspiration for elements I would never have thought of otherwise, taking the story in different directions. In this post, I am going to talk about four non-fiction books that I have found inspiring when writing my novels, non-fiction books to which I’m sure I’ll continue to return.
The Book of English Magic - Richard Heygate & Philip Carr-Gomm
This is a wonderful survey of England’s magical past, covering druids, Anglo-Saxon runes, Merlin, Alchemy, Freemasonry, and much, much more. Erudite but accessible, this hugely entertaining, enrichening book is a primer for occult history, and has opened for me many rich seams of research and inspiration. I returned to this book a number of times whilst writing This Sacred Isle, both for the sections on Anglo Saxon magic and the Matter of Britain, and also for the section on Alchemy and Tarot, which in their way influenced the shape of the story.
The book contains short biographies of leading figures within magical history, such as Aleister Crowley, as well as focuses on writers inspired by England’s magical tradition such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Susanna Clarke, J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman. There are suggestions for places to visit, and articles written by modern day magical practitioners, which I found fascinating and in places, very moving.
Even if you don’t believe in magic, read The Book of English Magic with an open mind, and it will take you on a trip to the Otherworld…
Wonderbook – Jeff VanderMeer
Wonderbook has proven to be a valuable addition to my non-fiction collection. It is an illustrated creative writing book, aimed mainly (though not exclusively) at writers of the fantastical (all SF, Horror and Fantasy authors will find reams of good material to explore here). It is jam-packed with advice on plotting, structure, characterisation, world-building and many more aspects of fiction writing.
I used this book during the edit of This Sacred Isle, and it helped me to see some different perspectives on my work, especially in terms of narrative design and testing my characters. The exercises and advice contained within Wonderbook made me challenge my work even more, to question my assumptions, to keep trying new techniques.
The heavily visual, often playful and irreverent, approach is bold and innovative, and the book also contains articles / interviews with writers such as George R. R. Martin, Neil Gaiman and Ursula Le Guin.
And it is not just the practical advice that makes Wonderbook such a valuable book for writers – it gives plenty of inspiration just to keep going, especially when the going gets tough.
Encyclopaedia of things that never were - Michael F. Page and Robert Ingpen
I picked up this book many years ago, and it’s been a faithful companion for my writing since then. It might be tricky to get a hold of a copy now, but it’s worth it if you can.
Drawing on examples from myth, legend and fantastical literature from around the world, you’ll discover all manner of mystical places, people and creatures. Richly illustrated, it is an entertaining, witty read, and I used the book to spark ideas for my Tree of Life trilogy - the saga takes place in an invented secondary world, and the Encyclopaedia of things that never were sparked many ideas for the creatures that inhabited that world and lands in which they lived.
For any lover of fantasy, I would recommend this book – leave logic at the door, and enter a world of dreams…
The illustrated Signs and Symbols Sourcebook - Adele Nozedar
This is a comprehensive and well-illustrated guide to the secret knowledge of signs and symbols, which I found both useful as a source for research and an entertaining read in its own right.
The book is divided into themed sections, covering a vast array of subjects such as magic, flora and fauna, deities, geometry, numbers and landscape.
I love using symbolism in my novels, and found this book extremely helpful as a guide and a source of fresh ideas – the structure makes it easy to dip into, and although in some areas it might be necessary to carry out more detailed research, there is a lot of depth to certain sections, for example the pages for tarot and astrology.
I’ve continued to use The illustrated Signs and Symbols Sourcebook for the research and planning of my latest novel, Second Sun, and I’m sure this will remain a well-thumbed tome for many more years and books to come!
In this latest post chronicling the writing of This Sacred Isle, I'll be looking at how I researched the novel.
Whatever type of novel you write, some level of research will be required. For This Sacred Isle I carried out the following types of research:
I find that a range of methods provides more depth to my research. Books and articles are crucial at checking facts and understanding the wider historical context. However, I contend that although essential, this is not enough in itself.
Much of This Sacred Isle takes place in locations that are real or inspired by real places. I made every effort to visit these locations (although clearly they are much changed from the 6th century!). For example, I visited Burgh Castle, the setting of the final battle in the book. Of course, I could have discovered the key facts about Burgh Castle by reading books or articles on the internet. But the experience of actually being there gave me so much more: mood, atmosphere and a real sense of place. As I stood within the ruined fort, ideas for the story sparked in my mind; I put myself in my character’s mind, trying to understand what their feelings would be faced by such a place.
Similarly I visited West Stow Anglo-Saxon village – this is a wonderful ‘living’ museum and an absolute treasure trove for anyone interested in this period. And as well as the fascinating artefacts and buildings, simply walking through and around the recreated village gave me so much. I remember sitting in the one of the halls, with a smoking hearth-fire blazing away and feeling that I was transported to that world. Such experiences go into my ‘sense memory’, which I draw upon as I write the book.
Clearly, it is not always possible to visit specific locations (if you’re writing a book about the Moon, for example, you might find that challenging) but if you can, I promise you’ll be richly rewarded.
In a similar vein, I take every opportunity I can to visit museums and galleries. I am fortunate to live within reasonably easy distance of London, which enables me to access to some of the world’s greatest collection of art and historical objects, but as you’ll see from the list below, I have also visited museums and galleries in smaller towns and cities too:
West Stow Anglo Saxon Village (near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk)
Sutton Hoo (near Woodbridge, Suffolk)
Norwich Castle Museum
Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge)
Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
British Museum (London)
Victoria and Albert Museum (London)
National Gallery (London)
Tate Britain (London)
Courtauld Gallery (London)
When I am researching, I find there is nothing like seeing (and when allowed, handling!) real objects from the period – it gives wonderful insights into a culture and I find it also guides me to certain aspects of a character. Remember, you are not just collecting facts; research is just as much about capturing the mood of a time – 6th century Anglo-Saxon England in my case. I worked on the basis that the readers of This Sacred Isle wanted a plausible, rich depiction of that time period – but not long descriptions of every artefact I have witnessed.
The research should seep into your fiction and in particular into your characters. One example during the writing of This Sacred Isle is when I saw in the British Museum a 6th century monastic hand-bell. One of the characters in the novel, Conn, is a novice monk, and seeing this object shaped how I saw his character. I thought about what the life of a monk at that time would be like, to have every hour of your life marked and controlled by the sound of bells. I compared it to elements of my own life – for example, how do I feel when my alarm sounds and I have to go to work (hint= not wonderful!). This allows me to make a human connection with a character and see the world through his eyes, to feel a sense of being restricted, trapped even, and to yearn for a freer life.
When visiting art galleries, the experience of research is sometimes more abstract (in the case of This Sacred Isle there are no paintings from 6th century East Anglia!) but no less inspirational. The themes in paintings are often universal and express fears and yearnings that are relevant for any period of human history.
Often, a painting will inspire ideas about the tone and use of colour in my writing. Sometimes they will specifically influence the way I describe a character. An example of this in This Sacred Isle is for the grotesque Thyrs Morcar and his companions encounter in the Great Fen. I really wanted to move away from the conventional monster or ghoul, and it was one painting in particular that for me locked the appearance of these grotesque pictures – Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. As I looked at this painting in the Tate Britain I was not only struck by its sheer power, but realised that the ghastly figures conveyed the sense of horror, the attitude, I wanted to capture when describing the Thyrs.
A visit to an art gallery, any art gallery, will inspire you and fire you with enthusiasm simply to create.
I have notepads for my research, although for visiting places, I have used a handy, pocket-sized notebook (see below – yes, it came from the wonderful Bletchley Park), which is ideal for scribbling down notes and ideas in crowded museums and galleries! This notebook has been my friend and companion on many a trip!
I do the majority of my research before I begin the first draft but that does not mean that research ceases at that point. I continue to research right until the final proofread of the last draft, whether simply fact-checking or looking to express an idea in a different format. When writing you must remain curious and hungry for knowledge. You can never predict how a book will turn out – it might be well-received, it might be instantly forgotten. But during the writing journey, you should at the very least learn a lot about a lot of subjects, and emerge, hopefully, a little wiser!
I genuinely love research but it is not the same as writing, and that’s the part I will come to in the next blog post…
Which research methods work best for you? Please leave a comment below and join the conversation.