The third research trip for my novel started and ended with snow. My flight from Cardiff to Belfast was delayed by 23 inches of it near the airport and by another fall on the return but I encountered nothing other than warmth from the people I met in Northern Ireland.
It was a pleasure to spend time with teachers, schoolchildren, community workers, experts in Irish and Ulster Scots, journalists, farmers and agricultural experts. I also enjoyed two great reading gigs and came home with a prize certificate.
Oh, and St Patrick’s Day (or was it that Irish rugby win) meant I got to see Stormont lit up in green.
I was fortunate to receive a SIAP award funded via the Arts Council of Northern Ireland by the National Lottery which kicked off my first trip back in November. I have been very generously supported in kind by friends and family.
This trip has had yet another packed schedule so now it’s over I am glad of the chance to reflect on my ‘research methodology’.
This morning I watched a video in which a novelist spoke about the role of research in the writing process. Her approach overlaps with mine only in certain areas (and she writes in a genre different to mine). She recommended writing a draft, noting where further research is needed to hone detail, doing the research, re-writing those sections.
But I have chosen to write a story which is beyond my comfort zone in several important aspects. This obliges me to research extensively before I can write much because I need to ‘see’ situations and how they interconnect; only then can I crack into the narrative process at any one point.
The whole is there in the block, as it were, and I have to sense the invisible network humming under the apparently solid surface before I can begin confidently on any part. I keep imagining Heaney’s ‘relaxed, alluring blow’ – that skillful awareness of exactly the right place to aim for.
I have mixed metaphors from sculpture and electronics and coal-hewing! With a touch of the hive too.
Perhaps the metaphor of cracking something open isn’t completely apt. It’s more about observing and absorbing; about my trying to be alert and open; recognizing my preconceptions and elbowing them aside to make room for the perspectives of others, while maintaining a proper respect for the role of my own perspective.
While doing journalistic work I’m used to holding that tension between my ego (which is the source of my capacity to judge) and the selves of others, and certainly this type of research for fiction also requires that discipline. But I’ve noticed a difference between the two approaches.
If I were researching for something purely journalistic I would do a lot more note-taking at the time (exact percentages, times and dates, for instance). However, at least at this stage, I find myself less concerned with those important details and more concentrated on receiving impressions and images.
I don’t, to any degree, imply that those factual details are unimportant − I’ve spent time in libraries on this trip and reading dozens of back issues of relevant trade papers – but the more intuitive side of things has seemed more appropriate, for now.
It’s as though I’m trying to construct something multi-faceted, in which the facets are of different extent and shape but each is a part of the whole. Each presents a face to the world while, at the same time, being intimately connected under the surface.
I see my characters and I know the key passions that are driving them and I know the basics of the plot but it’s as though these individuals are waiting patiently for me to understand enough about their worlds for them to feel confident to reveal themselves properly. That time will come. They will step forward. The energy will flow.
I’ve asked myself why I am so sure this will happen. It’s not that I haven’t frequently had to tell myself to hold my nerve in the face of my own ignorance about much that’s relevant. I assume my relative calmness is because I’ve done the long haul of story creation before in writing several full-length feature film screenplays. I recall the time and effort that went in to learning ‘worlds’. However, a stage always arrived where the factual underpinning took the strain and the characters were free to show themselves to me.
My documentary-making background is an additional encouragement to trust the process of painstaking investigation, married with an acknowledgement of the role of serendipity, or providence, and the part played by the impressive generosity of others.
I’ve been very encouraged during this two-week trip by the fact that, as I listened to people, their remarks and their sharing of experience were not dismantling my tentative story structure but confirming it in its essentials. I have been offered so much at a detailed level too − twists I’d never have thought of or striking but true variations.
And, as I outlined in my previous blogs about earlier trips …
I have been touched and impressed by the kindness and friendliness I’ve encountered. A university librarian could not change the rule that blocks my access to some online articles I’d love to read but he gave me a discarded photocopying card so I could copy the pages of a book I’d come from Wales to consult. It had exactly the right amount of money on it.
What is significant is not the saving of a pound or two, of course, it’s the thoughtfulness: the farmer, for instance, who took time to help me see life through his eyes despite the pitch-black, rainy night and the fact he had to go back to the cows when I left him.
There was so much life in the people I met.
That’s what I have needed to put my finger on.
Whether it was the ten-year-olds confidently critiquing each other’s stories (and what bravura they had!); the sensitivity of the counsellor who runs a support service for farmers in difficulty; the dairy-man worrying about Bovine TB but still sure there’s no better job; the newly qualified Irish-medium Primary School teacher − stretched but buoyant… it’s the vitality and commitment that stays with me.
And I met a fantastic spirit of camaraderie among the writers I encountered.
A poem of mine was placed in one of their competitions and is in the current issue. There was a real family atmosphere and that only comes from a genuine readiness to welcome the stranger as well as the familiar face, prioritising the work and the enjoyment of it.
Thanks to the consideration of writer, Anne McMaster (@Rosehill_girl) I was also able to take part in an event on International Women’s Day organised by Women Aloud NI. I read poetry and short fiction. I was especially pleased to be able to read a poem about my late father with his Welsh grand-daughter present in his home city of Belfast. And writer, Kerry Buchanan printed material for me to, literally, read from as I’d no access to a printer.
I plan to return to Northern Ireland in April as there is a key group of people I didn’t manage to meet but with whom I now have contact. Beyond that I know I need to find one or two advisers who will be willing to help me with certain details over the long haul.
Nothing left then but to write the novel. That will show me how appropriate my research process has been!