Wednesday 18 March 2015

Guest Post: Claire Dyer

The writer’s life: raw material, nothing is ever wasted

I’m often asked about the research I do for my novels and, in trying to answer this I’ve come to realise that for me, at least, there are three main types of research: planned research, research I didn’t realise was research at the time and completely fortuitous research.

Obviously with my latest novel, The Perfect Affair, eyebrows have been raised amongst my nearest and dearest, but I have told them that although some of my research takes a very tangible form, some is, of necessity, left to the imagination! However, I have undertaken some very planned and deliberate research for the novels I’ve written which haven’t as yet been published as well as for those which have.

For example, I’ve done a pottery course (for The Moment), travelled to Athens just to get a taste of the place (for The Perfect Affair), drunk cocktails with a friend in various bars in London (now that was a hardship!), spent an evening with a fire crew and a day with a florist, walked around the streets of Newbury town centre to find just the right place to open a coffee shop and then passed a very enjoyable day with the lovely people in my local Costa learning how their Lisa 3 Espresso Machine worked; I’ve interviewed a doctor, a pharmacist, visited the Sea Life London Aquarium, been driven through the leafy lanes of Surrey with a notebook on my lap, asked my cousin a hundred questions about her sewing business and a local carpenter a hundred questions about wood, studied Opie’s Scrapbooks for references to the 50s and 60s and even sent my parents a questionnaire asking them what washing powder was used, how much a leg of lamb cost and what contraceptive methods they employed when they were young (a question which caused yet more raised eyebrows!).

However, I’ve also mined experiences and the memories of places which when I lived through them or visited them I did not know they would, in time, become useful or indeed, necessary, references for plot points or settings in my novels. For example, I stumbled down the steps at my local cinema after a showing of The Great Gatsby and was rescued from falling by a stranger (almost a year later this experience became the genesis for my short story, Falling for Gatsby) and I love watching murder mysteries on TV (as my family will attest I am almost always half-way through an episode of Morse, Lewis, DCI Banks, Poirot, etc.,), a love which transferred itself into my character Myles’s fictional detective, DCI Derek Pletheroe, in The Perfect Affair. However, there are other, more nebulous experiences and memories; there is childbirth and grief, the places I lived as a child, holidays I’ve had with my family in a wonderful former fishing village in Turkey, the smell of baking in my grandmother’s kitchen, the way salty air can sting my cheeks when I’m by the sea. All these can get put into the mix too.

And then there’s fortuitous research, when I realise that the thing I’m looking at, the place I am, the experience I’m having RIGHT NOW is just what I need for the next sentence I am going to write. So, the day I found myself on Newgale Sands in Pembrokeshire I knew I’d arrived at the place my character Eve needed to be at the end of The Perfect Affair and, when I was looking for a piece of music for another character to hear in her head at a very significant moment in her life, I clicked on Google and it just happened to be Debussy’s birthday and the very special people at Google had posted an animation of Clair de Lune as that day’s Google Doodle, music that proved the perfect choice for both me and her, and then finally, just the other day I was having a facial (it is very tough being a writer sometimes!) and when the beautician touched my temples I knew I’d found the lost memory of her mother my character was searching for and about which I needed to write the very next day.

So, for me the word ‘research’ is a very broad church but that’s what’s wonderful about the writer’s life: whether it be a word, or a sunset or being taken for a power boat ride by a handsome man in a tuxedo, nothing is ever wasted!

You can find out more about Claire and her books at or on Twitter: @ClaireDyer1

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