Covid and researching novels

This is going to be difficult

Hello! happy new year! This is my first Substack newsletter so please bear with me. This is primarily going to be about writing novels, but as I’m also a journalist specialising in video games and digital culture, some of that will crop up as well. I’m not sure which of these you’ve subscribed to hear about, so let’s see how it goes. Feedback is very welcome!

Currently, I’m right at the start of writing my fourth novel. I have a really vague idea for it, and the nest step is to produce a one page synopsis to share with my editor Ed Wood, who’ll then help me to expand it into a couple of pages and then finally a sort of design document for the book.

The key issue this year is going to be research. For Frequency of Us, my third novel (due out at the end of March), I did a LOT of research that involved travel and meeting people. The book is partially set in Bath in the late-1930s, which is a period in the city’s history that isn’t particularly well documented. So I had several brilliant chats with local historians Cathryn Spence and David McLaughlin about this era. I spoke to David in his home, and we spent hours looking through his vast library of books on the city - not just histories but also novels and memoirs set in Bath during the period, most notably The Golden House by Horace Annesley Vachell and Darling Madam by Gillian Kersley, which were crammed with period detail and probably wouldn’t have come up in conversation if we were on a Zoom call. I also spent a lot of time at the Bath Archive beneath Guildhall (which actually appears in my novel) and at the Bath Fashion Museum, where the staff kindly showed me a lot of 1930s clothes they had in storage. There is a particular quality to the information you get when you meet people in person that you don’t get remotely or via email; you can be much more casual and chatty and things just come up, tangents are explored, ideas arrive because of personal contact. So I feel for authors currently trying to find new ways to replicate these experiences online.

There is also something really important about visiting and exploring the setting of a novel - you get a sense of place that would be impossible from secondary sources. I live really close to Bath and know the city well, but exploring the streets and surrounding countryside with the novel in mind gave a lot of new perspectives. I can still get to Bath, but the new book has a lot of London locations and I’ve not been there for eight months - and if any city relies on close contact to capture its atmosphere, it’s this one.

So yeah, I’m not sure how to work over the coming months. Whether I spend this time on structure and characterisation and leave the detailed research work for later, or whether I get as much as I can from online research, or wandering the streets of London on Google Maps?! But I will miss meeting people like Cathryn and David, and the historian Daniel Snowman, who I met in the beautiful hotel in St Pancras and who told me so much about the lives of upper class Jewish families in Vienna (another element of Frequency of Us) over coffee and croissants. Part of writing good characters and places is capturing idiosyncracies - the tiny details that bring something to life. There’s a scene in Sarah Waters’ novel Nightwatch where two of the characters visit a little East End cafe during the second world war; all the customers have to stir their tea using a single spoon attached to the counter by a length of string. I don’t know why, but that communicated a lot to me about the time, the poverty, the make-do attitude. I wonder how she stumbled on this little feature, but I’m certain it wasn’t from some grand WWII history book.

I wonder if some authors are just going to totally re-think the sorts of novels they write this year, or whether, like me, they’ll do what they can for now and hope that in the months to come, the world opens up again.