The perils of research

As previously recounted here, I’m currently working on my putative second novel, Forever 27, whilst awaiting publishers’ responses for The Heartland of the Winter. While I’ve written a prologue and a brief account of my main character’s childhood, the bulk of the work I’ve done so far has been research of one kind or another, a bit of a new experience for me. One of the reasons I originally started writing in the fantasy genre is because you don’t have to do much or any research: you can just make it up. Now I find myself attempting to write a book set in the real world, and in the past at that (admittedly just the 1990s rather than the 14th century). Which means I suddenly have to know the answers to questions like: ‘when did people stop doing the 11-plus?’ and ‘at what age was Kate Moss discovered?’ and ‘would a staff journalist at a local rag have had a mobile phone in 1992?’. It’s all suspiciously close to hard work, and I don’t really know what I’m doing. I am at least lucky enough to have a very supportive network of writer friends, whose help has been invaluable so far and will doubtless continue to be – so thank you to everyone, especially the two Marks.

Aside from the period detail, because the book is set in the world of music, I’m having to research a lot of stuff about sex and drugs and rock n’ roll. The sex and drugs part of that equation means I’ve ended up googling some fairly bizarre phrases, hoping that if I end up on some dubious website ‘it’s not for me, it’s for my characters’ will be an adequate excuse. But I suppose it’s better to keep it on the internet than to go out and do field research into the lives of groupies and heroin addicts – I don’t have the time for starters.

At least I’ve managed to keep the research on sex and drugs and local journalism within fairly defined boundaries, finding the answers to specific questions. The rock n’ roll, on the other hand… well. The 27 Club – a group of famous musicians who have died at the age of 27, including Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, and Amy Winehouse – underpins the whole concept of the novel, and I’ve been trying to immerse myself in their music and the details of their lives. Which, I’ll admit, is not a very well-defined research goal. On the plus side, it means I can stumble across little gems buried in lyrics and biographies and think ‘I can use that!’. Also, having started out with a worry bead that my plot outline was a bit far-fetched, I’m now confident that, whatever crazy stuff I can dream up, some drug-addled rock star already did it. On the negative side, it means I can spend an entire evening watching a live DVD of The Doors and come away with no information more useful than the fact that Jim Morrison was a hopeless alcoholic. Which I kind of already knew. I also made the mistake of asking my Dad (who is, to be honest, ultimately to blame for the whole idea) if he had any books about Jimi Hendrix. Answer: a mere shelf-full. And of course, this kind of unfocused research can get perilously close to procrastination, especially when those ‘if you liked x, you may like y’ algorithms on Spotify and YouTube lure me into checking out the work of other musicians who might be equally talented but failed to die at 27 and hence don’t count as relevant. When I find myself half-wishing John Bonham had died five years earlier, I know it’s time to put the internet down and get back to thinking through my characters’ motivations, possibly whilst listening to Bleach.

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