Researching and writing - in the eye of the project-storm

I'm into the first draft of a new novel. The project, which I'm only going to describe in the broadest details, because I'm like that, has been simmering for quite a while. Now it's time to get it all out of my head and onto the page. 

Usually, my preparation for writing something historical (which this is; it's an Elizabethan-set thriller of sorts) involves immersing myself in the history and keeping an eye out for gaps in which the novel might occur. That was how I got the idea for The Prospect of This City, for example. 

With this new piece, which has the working title An Act for the Queen's Safety (Act, for short), I'm taking a somewhat different route. I've got the main characters and the principal and minor storylines sorted out, but this time out I'm researching as I'm going. What I'm trying to avoid is getting bogged down in the history - I'm writing a novel first, a historical work second, if that makes sense. 

So, stacks of notes / character biographies / little bits of business are to hand. Books are laid out in awkward piles. Drive-space is filling up with images and handy-looking websites and articles. I've got a very interesting PhD thesis (on Elizabethan spy networks) downloaded onto my Kindle. There's a fat fistful of DVDs to hand for referencing specific visuals and the like.

This week, though, has been all about the legwork. I've done a couple of days in the British Library (and there's a whole other blog post to come at some point about that). I've taken photos of London side-streets. I've walked parts of the story-scape (great chunks take place within a diameter of a few hundred yards, so I've spent time going round the same streets that the book takes place in).  I had the pleasure of being given an impromptu guided tour of St Olave's church, Hart St, London, by the kind and enthusiastic church manager Phil Manning.  I've visited museums and galleries (the top floor of the National Portrait Gallery, the Victoria & Albert and British Museums, plus the Museum of London - which remains my favourite museum in the world).  

I've done some other quasi-research things too: I took in a performance at the Globe Theatre of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, plus I took the theatre's behind-the-scenes tour too. I've got a significant early scene set at the theatre, so I can more than justify this!

Plenty of this is fun in its own right, and I've made a bit of a holiday of it (I'm not a native or relocated Londoner, after all, so the capital is something of a rare treat) but it serves the useful purpose of getting myself into an appropriately Elizabethan frame of mind. If I can get that in my head and have the means to access memories and experiences through notes and photos, then I can use elements of that in the writing, rather than have to make stuff up.

Top tip in writing, by the way. Make up as little as you can get away with. There's worlds of material to draw upon, and all of it's external to you. It's free and it wants to be used. So get involved with it. 

There's a perhaps-inevitable tension in historical fiction between the historical and the fictional, and the resulting book will be neither wholly one or the other. But this kind of immersion is really useful to me; and unexpected images, moments, characters and  observations will present themselves. If I rely purely on research materials and on my own imagination, then  the novel will be a product of those elements. The more I'm opened up to, the more I've got to draw upon. Simple as that. 

So. Three-and-a-bit days in London, and I think that I've got more than enough to help support completing the first draft of Act. The next task is to finish that, and to do it as fast as I can, so that the writing runs together. I've set myself the deadline of first draft completion by the end of October 2015.

I'd best get a wiggle on.  

My earlier novel The Prospect of This City is out now and is available from me in paperback (signed of you prefer!) and in both paperback and ebook via Amazon. Like Act, it's London-set, though we're in the Restoration rather than Elizabethan world.