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The endless rabbit holes of building backstory

I’ve told you this before: I’m doing a creative writing MA right now. I don’t say this for attention or applause or any kind of accolade; I say it because the module I’m currently working on keeps insisting we do research and plotting and these are not things I do very often.

In my first novel, Dear Isobel, the research was minimal; the plotting little more than the linear reporting of something I knew something about. There are only four main characters, and the narrator so self-centred that she didn’t need to know anything more than her own opinion of the other three. No massive research work needed here; just observations of people and life.

My cosy mysteries – Oh! WAIT! Let me just show you this… (sorry, brief and somewhat excitable interlude happening here.)

Look what arrived today!

… sorry – it just arrived today – the proof copy of A Diet of Death!

… now, where was I?

Research and planning. My cosy mysteries need a wee bit more planning and research, mainly because the characters and setting run through the series so I need to ensure I keep things consistent.

If Jess lives at Number 7, Orchard Close, opposite Linda at Number 15, with Patricia and Ann at number 12 and 11, and Ann doesn’t have an E on the end of her name and Patricia works at the local vet’s in Book 1 … then they can’t suddenly live at Orchard Street or have a different spelling of their names in Book 2. So I need a bit of a system, and when I say system, I mean this:

(Oops, sorry, did I accidentally slip the proof copy of A Diet of Death that just arrived today into that photo?)

My main planning for this Jess O’Malley cosy mystery series involves making a timeline for each book. Each timeline links to the ones used for other books in the series, and I use a calendar from a real year so I can track important dates and work out which day of the week someone’s funeral might have been if St Patrick’s Day was a Wednesday and suchlike. Pedantic? Maybe, but I’d rather it works and stays believable than have someone call me out because I get something implausibly wrong.

I also have a detailed map of Ballyfortnum, so I know what happens if Jess and Fletcher turn left at the end of Orchard Close on their walks, as opposed to where they end up if they turn right. I know where the bog lane is, and where the main villagers live. I know which landmarks Jess passes when she walks to the shop, and where Jess can duck into a field gate to answer her phone.

This all became increasingly important AFTER I wrote A Diet of Death and began its sequel. It was at that point that I also added a lot more to each character’s index card, so I can ensure if Father James has red hair in Book 1, he doesn’t get black hair in Book 2, and if Kate … no… that was almost a spoiler.

You get the idea, I think.

You’ll see from the close-up photo of the label on the folder that I also included some little details I needed to keep consistent such as certain characters’ speech patterns. Most of the notes in this folder are about the characters, the setting, and the story structure. The last two things on that list are some of the very few points of ‘real research’ A Diet of Death needed: my notes on the inquest and coroner system here in Ireland, and some notes on anorexia, in the form of information shared with me by people who have experienced this illness. The information in those notes was important research to ensure that potentially sensitive topics are accurately portrayed. In Book 2, I have added research into hair. Yep. Hair. Jess’s brother’s wife is Nigerian and I needed to get their children’s hair right. Small things, but important details to build authentic characters, especially when I’m writing characters with experiences or characteristics outside of my own experience.

This brings me back to that MA work. This current module has me tackling the biggest writing project I’ve attempted to date. My current novel-in-writing is told from multiple Points of View with several main characters, none of whom are ‘me’ (And when I say ‘me’ I mean, unlike my previous books, none of these characters are middle-aged women who wander around rural Ireland with their dog.) This Work-in-Progress is set in 1987, but stretches back to encompass the 1950s and 1960s. It features characters who were born just after WWI and necessitates me knowing, in no particular order:

  • Reserved occupations (because lazily, I thought this would mean I could avoid researching the war itself, if I kept my character at home. Wrong. See next item.)
  • World War II
  • Exact dates for World War I (so I could adjust my main character’s age accordingly and decide whether his father had fought in that war or not)
  • The Windrush era
  • Partition of India
  • bullying in school (particularly due to ethnicity)
  • secondary school in the 1950s and 1960s
  • secondary school in 1987 (easier, as I was there)
  • the layout of the old hospital in my hometown
  • street maps of my old hometown
  • data protection in the 1980s
  • how to become a teacher in the 1940s
  • The Great Storm in the UK in 1987

…and so on. And most of that will be such tiny backstory for certain different characters that it won’t even be evident in the story. Nonetheless, it is crucial to know the characters and without it, mistakes will be made – for example, I put two of my characters into sixth form, age 16, in 1953, and then realised that most children left school at age 15 back then. And girls and boys were largely segregated. If I hadn’t realised this in time to fix it, some reader would have noticed it for sure, and by then, too late.

Here is a tiny snapshot of what planning and researching look like for THIS book:

I have two pages of timelines (one for 1987 and one for 1914-1975); eight separate story arc diagrams (one for each key character and one main, amalgamated plot arc); photos of the setting; piles of scribbled notes, many of which involve maths where I have worked out such things as “If X was a teacher in XXXX how old was he then?” and “If X met X in XXXX, aged 14, when were they born?” and “If X was working here in XXXX, when did she arrive in the UK?”

So yes, I can finally say, thanks to my MA work, for this novel, I am now officially a planner, not a panster. And I kind of like it. I genuinely have no idea how I would have held the strands of this idea together without becoming a planner. Will I stay a planner? Maybe. The rabbit holes of research run too deep and too wide and are too alluring to stay out of. I tell myself I haven’t the time for all this research but I have a very strong suspicion that any one of the topics I’m getting sidetracked by could turn into the Next Great Idea for the Next Book. I guess planning and research have a use after all.

Gotta go; I need to look up whether a school secretary in 1987 had manila files in her filing cabinet drawers. It’s not all thrilling, see.

Love, Jinny

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