One of the things I love about writing is all the interesting things I discover on the way to writing the story. Becuase I write historical fiction, there’s quite a lot research involved. I spend a whole month looking up bits and pieces before I even start to write – and the research doesn’t end until the story is done. The strange thing is most of the things I discover don’t end up in a book at all. But it still helps me write.
Research gives me story ideas. When I was writing Polar Boy, my initial idea was a story about a boy who was scared of bears. I was thinking polar bears, because they are magnificent creatures, they scare the life out of me, and I wouldn’t go anywhere near one! As I dug deeper into my research I discovered the Vikings were coming from Greenland, at the same time as my story, heading for the same place I was. And they were called ‘the berserkers’ or ‘bears’. So immediately my plot extended and it wasn’t a Polar Bear that became Iluak’s biggest challenge. It was the threat of the Vikings who didn’t want to share the land with the Inuit people.
Research is full of snippets of day-to-day information. What should my characters wear? What do they eat? Do the doors have doorhandles? I am constantly surprises how much the details of life change from place to place and through the centures.
Another thing I get from research is a strong sense of time and place. I am an armchair writer. I never travel anywhere, although I would love to visit Japan. So when I am writing the Samurai Kids series I have to imagine I am there. I do this by watching documentaries, looking at images, reading books written by Japaese samurai hundreds of years ago and listening to shakuhachi flute music.
Sometimes I can’t find all the answers I need. I wanted my samurai kids to study origami. I knew the samurai believed it was important to exercise the mind as well as the body and in addition to fighting skills they also learned other things – like flower arranging and poetry! And I knew origami was paractised in Japan at the time of my novel. But I couldn’t find any proof – not a sentence, not a picture. So I decided most kids love origami so the samurai kids would too and included it in my book.
When I was researching the next Samurai Kids book, Elephant Feet (#7). I needed to know all about Cambodia. I didn’t know anything. One thing I quickly learned is it has the most amazing array of birds and animals. Many of the birds and their calls made their way into my story background like the hoopoe bird (It’s call is oop-oop-oop! You can listen to a sound file here ). But I was always gettting sidetracked by other interesting information even though I knew I wouldn’t use it. Here’s an example. I found that a new species of gecko had been discovered in the southern mountains of Cambodia. It’s wonderful to think new species are still being found but there is a sad side to this lizard discovery too. Cambodia has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world and many of it animal habitats are in danger of disappearing.
PS When I went to find a picture of the gecko on the Internet I found another new species had been discovered even more recently – a blind legless lizard that looks like a snake!
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Making a Noise – in the library!