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Method Research

When research changes the writer

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

April 2020. The UK is in the third week of lockdown. Covid-19 has reduced daily life to four walls and human interaction to little boxes on a screen. Down a phone line, the clarity of which belies the physical and cultural distance, I’m listening to the slow mellifluous voice of Hutke Fields, Chief of the Natchez Nation, describe the intricacies of Native American naming ceremonies. In the background I hear the breath of wind through Oklahoma trees and unfamiliar birdsong, the slow rumble of heavy trucks leaving the nearby quarry. ‘They’re still working,’ Hutke tells me, ‘I don’t know why; no one is building anything right now.’

For an hour I’m transported from the red-brick terraces and tarmac of Stockport to the reservations of Oklahoma, and further still – further back – to the Mississippi Delta, where Hutke’s ancestors built huge temple mounds, where a sacred fire burned and spirits were appeased, where desperate men rebelled against French invaders and an indigenous community was almost destroyed.

Eight months previously, I had visited that sacred place. Lulled by the drone of insects, I felt an eerie stillness beneath the pressing Mississippi sun. I lingered in the spot where Hutke’s ancestors made their stand and blood ran from the bluffs into the Mississippi silt. Could I have written about those people without that fieldtrip? Yes, of course. But would I – a middle-aged, middle-class white woman from England – have been able to imagine their experience as faithfully had I not felt that sun, breathed that heavy air and sifted that Mississippi silt through my fingertips?

As a writer of historical novels, research is at the core of my work. There is no story without history. Most writers of historical fiction chose their subject because they’re drawn by the past, and research is a seductive part of the process. Much has been written about researching a novel and how writing changes the writer, but what about research? Does that change the writer, too?

‘How do you research?’ is a question I’m asked often in my role as author and teacher. I speak of the endless reading, the painstaking unpicking of primary and secondary sources, of location visits, museum trips, documentary watching, and hours lost down research rabbit holes. And then I talk about what I half-jokingly call ‘method research’ — the practice of experiencing something in order to write about it.

I often tell of a weekend I spent up to my elbows in blood and birth-fluids in a lambing shed on a North Yorkshire hill farm, about the lamb I couldn’t save and how my heart still tugs whenever I think of him. I talk about the healthy new-born I pulled from his mother, the anxious midnight vet visits, the visceral realities of farming life, then and now, and the impact it had on my third novel, The Coffin Path.

A lone text on seventeenth-century sheep farming gave me precise detail about the farming year and the basics of sheep husbandry, but without that weekend would the book have been the same? Perhaps I could have imagined the sensorial aspects of the work, but not the emotional truths of such up-close daily dealings with life and death, which were so far from my own experience. I wonder, did it change me, beyond a reconfirmation of my vegetarianism?

I think it did. There is intellectual research – the sort that can be done from the desk – and there is experiential research, the sort that delivers an emotional punch that forever alters perceptions: learning how to shoot a gun, interviewing terminally-ill patients, a day trip to Auschwitz.

Every author is different, but many historical fiction writers take this concept seriously, conscientiously learning how to handle medieval weaponry, or hand sew a sixteenth-century court dress. For some, it’s a crucial part of the research process. Author Christian Cameron’s commitment to research extends to re-enactment and experimental archaeology, passions which have changed his writing and his life in many ways: ‘To me, the only way to know history is to experience it — to wear the clothes and eat the food and ride the animals and shoot the bows.’

My own experiences bear this out. In 2018 I was the recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award. I spent twelve months living and researching in New Orleans, with the intention of setting a novel there. For a whole year I gathered information. I dug about in archives, talked to experts, visited museums and attended lectures. I listened, learned, and read.

I was welcomed and encouraged. New friends told me their Katrina stories, Uber drivers discussed slavery and institutional racism, random encounters led me on the trail of stories I’d not found in history books. New Orleans is a city built on stories and they change with every telling. I learned there is no single truth.

But what I remember most are those moments of visceral sensory and emotional experience as I traced the footsteps of the characters I had in mind: canoeing the Louisiana swamplands in sweltering summer heat; the sultry, loaded atmosphere of old plantations; a whole city simmering with Mardi Gras anticipation; dancing the bamboula beat in Congo Square; the entwined grief and joy of a funeral second line; the silent sunset-streaked avenues, waiting for a hurricane, and so much more.

The city challenged me. Delving into its past, I began to understand its complexities and contradictions. I saw the persistence of whitewashed historical narratives and the erasure of a blood-soaked history for the benefit of the tourist hordes who come to party on Bourbon Street. I could have read about all this in books, but I would not have seen its repercussions face-to-face. From afar, I would not have seen that this history is still present. I would not have witnessed the failing federal systems, the economic disparities, the remnants of segregation, the poverty reminiscent of a developing country, and the bleak realities for so many in the richest country in the world.

Of course, even our most well-intentioned efforts are limited. There are some things we can never experience. But, there is value in the attempt to understand. This experience forced me to re-evaluate my own preconceptions, wrangle with my own privilege, face direct questions of cultural appropriation and even my identity as a writer. I will only ever be a voyeur when it comes to New Orleans. I will never truly be part of the city, but it changed a part of me and, consequently, altered what I want to achieve in my work.

Rose Tremain says, ‘all the research done for [a] novel […] must be reimagined before it can find a place in the text […] Reimagining implies some measure of forgetting.’ Emma Darwin, novelist and author of Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, describes this process as ‘composting’. Research must bed down, internalise, become fragmented and illusory. In other word, it must become memory, and memory forms who we are.

My research has changed me, just as much as it changes the work. The things I’ve experienced in the name of research are now memories, anecdotes and autobiography. History and research may form the backbone of my fiction, but they become part of my own story, too.

Katherine Clements is the author of three historical novels published by Headline. She is a Fulbright Scholar, a member of the Historical Writers’ Association committee and is lead tutor at the Historical Novel Society Academy. Katherine is based in West Yorkshire and also works as a writing coach and mentor.

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