I’m currently writing a novel about a shit-storm that ensues when a small Scottish community decides to buy the island it inhabits from the wealthy, always absent and appallingly neglectful, landlord.
I’ve written the first draft, and now I’m onto the research. Some people research first, I know, but I write and then fill the gaps in my knowledge. I’ve learnt that researching first doesn’t work for me, I get far too hung up on what I don’t know, what I need to know, what it’s possible to know. I go off at tangents and end up unable to write anything. My undergrad dissertation was the last time I attempted to research before getting my ideas down, I ended up in such a storm of notes I was barely able to move. Now I write the whole thing, whatever that thing is, put it to one side for a while, then work out what I need to know.
This doesn’t mean I don’t still get hung up on research, I do. At the moment the thing I’m most hung up on is Maslow’s Motivational Model.
A key character in the novel is violently against the community buyout for no apparent reason. But he must have reasons, and in order to render him fully I need to know what they are. Thus I’ve had to ask myself what motivates him. Does he feel his safety and security needs are threatened? That hardly seems likely, but it’s not impossible. What about his esteem needs, or his belonging and love needs?
In my first draft I’ve written him as a slimy little narcissist who simply doesn’t like it when others succeed at anything (esteem needs). He wants to be seen as the cleverest, most admirable person on the island, regardless of the fact he never does anything to be admired for and is generally seen as a tit. But that’s too simple and flat, not to mention boring and clichéd. I need to make him real, and real people are complex with needs and desires, and histories. But not being the sort of person who sends anonymous death threats to librarians I’m finding it difficult to inhabit him. Hence my Maslow obsession.
I’m trying to find a way into a character who is nothing like me or anyone I know. But this time, although I’m reading like a starved child eats, I’m taking no notes.
A Couple of Saturdays ago I went to a writers’ conference in Wigtown – the Writers’ Gathering – where I had a workshop on how to use research with Lucy Ribchester. Lucy writes historical fiction, so her work relies heavily on research, and she was able to pass on a piece of advice that could solve all my ‘too many notes’ problems. I think she said she got it from Hilary Mantel, who, she said read piles of stuff when researching a novel but, rather than taking notes, let the information wash through her. In this way she was able to know the subject of her research – Tudor England, for example – as if she had first hand experience of it. She didn’t write Woolf Hall as a historical novelist, looking back and making explicit decisions about what to put in and what to leave out, she wrote it as if she were a contemporary who didn’t need to think about it. She absorbed sixteenth century experience and knowledge as she read, so was able to write about it in a very natural way. In this way I hope to gain enough knowledge about motivation from Maslow to be able to write as if I am that toxic little shit desperate for respect and reputation. He’ll be both good and bad, like all of us, and not a caricature. I hope. I don’t want to judge him, I want to be him, just for a while.
The next stage of my research will be to go a spend some time on a small Scottish island, just to get a feel for life in such a place. I hope to walk round it, explore its nooks, and talk to people about their experiences. But I won’t take notes. We’ll see how that goes.
Header image: Valtos, Isle of Lewis, Scotland, by me.