Interview: On Research
Q: Your latest book, The Skin Map, takes place in Egypt, Macao, England, Prague. How do you do research so that these places are believable?
A: In order to be believable, you must be accurate. Obviously a novelist can get away with a certain amount of artistic license – especially if the setting is, say, the Eighteenth Dynasty of ancient Egypt, about which some things are known but much remains unknown. However, small mistakes can build up to the point where the reader is no longer willing to suspend disbelief and go along with the story.
Years ago, I met a man who had kept a small library of detailed maps of Britain – the Ordnance Survey Maps – and whenever he read a book set in Britain he would look up all the locations, track the characters’ routes, and check the novelists’ assumptions against the facts. I can tell you, that was a pretty sobering encounter for a writer. So I try to get it right.
Q: And how do you ‘get it right’?
A: Read, travel, verify. In the case of The Skin Map – and the entire BRIGHT EMPIRES series, which spans vast distances of time and space – this is a book that I have been writing for fifteen, maybe twenty years. In my mind I’ve thought of it as my ‘super fantasy’ and during that whole time I’ve been preparing myself to write it.
Q: In what way have you been preparing?
A: Thinking about the plot, and how it will develop – also, the characters who will be involved. Reading and thinking about quantum physics, and how hard science (if there is such a thing) would support the sub-created universe of the book. Also, during that time I have been developing my skills as a writer so that I could pull it off, because it’s a very complicated series technically. Paying attention to random things: writing down names that I might want to use for my characters, for example, or taking note of how people behave around ancient monuments. And then, of course. travelling to the places that appear in the book.
Q: So you’ve been to Egypt, and Prague and Oxford, and all those places?
A: All of those places, to be sure -- and others that are yet to appear as well. Oxford is where I live, so that’s a location that I’m becoming increasingly familiar with on many levels.
Sometimes – and this has happened with other books, it’s unavoidable – I can’t travel to the place I need to write about. That may be for political reasons, such as the country being closed to Westerners, or it may simply not be worth travelling to some far-flung place if it only makes a fleeting appearance in the story. It may also be that, now in the 21st-century, it is almost pointless to go to a place and be able to get much inspiration for how it was hundreds of years ago. For example, if I wanted to know what Manhattan Island was like in the 1200s, a week in New York City, as much as I might enjoy it, really isn’t going to be much help.
So, in the past, I have used experiences gained in one place to stand in as another. For example, years ago I visited Haiti – still very primitive in the hinterland – to inform descriptions of India. In The Iron Lance I let a visit to Kairouin Tunisia, stand in for medieval Baghdad, as the ancient walled city was closer visually and historically than the bustling modern metropolis in Iraq would have been.
Q: The sense of being in Egypt is very strong.
A: Good. I travelled there twice while writing The Skin Map, and I hope I’ve captured some of what I observed. The heat, for example. Really, it hits you like a flat iron, and while it is entirely possible to imagine being hot while sitting comfortably at 20 degrees centigrade in Oxford, there’s nothing like walking through the Valley of the Kings, no shade, at 45 degrees centigrade. It makes a definite impression.
And the Nile. Of course, now the Nile has been dammed at Aswan and that has affected the countryside dramatically throughout Egypt, so you have to imagine what it was like when the Pharaohs ran the place. But I made an effort, by spending a week in small wooden boat – a dahabiya – sailing from Aswan to Luxor, berthing on the riverbank each night, and observing along the way the villages and people I could see, and even visiting some of those villages.
Once the boat was tied up, the captain – an elegant man who wore a traditional gallabiyah with a light purple turban – would stroll ashore with a plastic bag of something smokeable in his hand. He’d make a little fire, walking around it as he fed in bits of sticks and wood he found on the riverbank. When he got his campfire going, one of his crewmen brought him his hubble-bubble pipe, and he sat there cross-legged smoking sheesha while his crew trimmed the sails, and settled the boat for the night.
I’m always looking for the little hook on which a plot point can be hung, looking for connections and congruencies. Looking for local knowledge, or views that aren’t mainstream – I talk to guides, waiters, shop keepers, drivers, anyone really – and anything that might provide an opportunity to go in a new direction, or think in a new way. I rarely accept the ‘accepted’ opinion without examining it. I guess I’m a classic sceptic at heart – especially when it comes to history because so much of what we think we know is often just wrong.
Q: Is it hard to find time to write? It seems that the research would take a lot of time.
A: Travelling takes time. But I also glean a lot from books and it has to be admitted that the Internet can, with certain provisos, be helpful. Although virtually everyone has access to the Internet, so if I get some detail wrong it won’t be long before I’m found out.
Q: You said you ‘verify’. What does that mean?
A: I’ve learned from bitter experience that a writer needs nitpicking copy editors and other knowledgeable readers who can read the manuscript critically and pick up errors in description. My past mistakes are so painful I don’t even like to remember them, but I’ve learned my lesson. For The Skin Map, I had experts look at all the German that was used, and the Arabic. An expert in 17th-century costuming also read the book – who knew that neck ruffs had mostly fallen into disuse in London by 1666? And so on.
The problem is: what you don’t know, you don’t see. Sometimes something will slip through because I don’t know enough to question it. I almost had one of my characters in Prague, circa 1606, say she was going to Bratislava, and only at the last minute realised that Bratislava is a modern name (est. 1919) for Pressburg – which is where the character in the book would have been going. I just didn’t know enough about Pressburg/Bratislava. My wife caught that one, actually.
The more readers, the better. Verify, verify, verify.
Q: Now you’re writing the second book, The Bone House. Do all the titles have body parts in them?
A: No! Just those two, for some reason.
Q: And what sort of research are you doing for this next book?
A: Loads of reading, some more travel, talking to experts – my usual blend of source work. However, much of the research has already been done. My characters are still flitting about the universe, and as the story unfolds they will re-visit some of their old haunts, but some new locations show up: the caves of the Dordogne Valley in France – where I spent ten days last year on a walking trip; also, Montserrat outside Barcelona; Tuscany, and who knows? There may even be a new world setting.
But I wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression, that I’m just writing up my travel notes, or reporting on a pleasant holiday. By the same token, I'm not an historian or physicist. I’m not writing textbooks. My job is to tell a story, and research is only useful if it helps make the story better, if it makes it more interesting and convincing to the reader.
One of the highest compliments for me is to have a reader say, “I really felt as if I was there.” Job done.