Authors Rebecca Mascull and Kerry Drewery interview each other
Posted on: 19/09/2013 with tags: authors, fact, fiction, historical fiction, historical research, inspiration, interview, Rebecca Mascull, The Visitors, writing
What are your research methods?
KD: I tend to start off quite wide, just to get a feel for the place; reading novels set there, watching documentaries, etc, and as I get to know where the story is going the research will become more specific to do with time/place/event etc. With A Brighter Fear, I wanted to get a range of opinions on what was happening, so I read accounts by soldiers, people living there, journalists.
I also created a ‘picture board’, with photos of anything that gave me a good feel for the place and its people and I had this next to me when I was working. The difficulty is not getting distracted by what’s not relevant to the story. It’s important to remember that the research is there to serve the story.
RM: I do a picture wall too! I love collecting images from books, online and research visits, to allow me to walk into that world whenever I walk into my study. My methods are very similar to yours, yet I avoid reading novels set in the same period as mine, as I’m terrified I will inadvertently steal someone else’s ideas/historical details/even dialogue, so I avoid them like the plague!
Rebecca’s picture wall.
KD: When I was researching A Dream of Lights, a read a novel written by an ex-CIA officer, or something, who’d spent time there, and he included a lot of detail of the nature of the place which was excellent for background information. I was also working on a Japanese story and read a novel by a Japanese author to get a feel for their way of speaking.
RM: Yes, actually, I should clarify – I avoid contemporary novels set in my chosen historical period, yet I do read lots of stuff written at the time I am writing about. For example, while I was writing THE VISITORS I read Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga – I knew I was in no danger of being influenced by his narrative style, as it was so different from my own. But it did give me the atmosphere of Edwardian England and some of the little cultural details he would know from experience, having lived through it himself and not merely receiving it second-hand, as I do.
Did anything you discovered in your research affect the course of your novel once you’d already plotted it?
KD: Yes, definitely. When researching A Dream of Lights I read a disturbing account of what happens to babies born in the prison camps. I had a real dilemma as to whether or not to include it as it was so upsetting, but it actually ended up being a pivotal part of the story.
RM: Oh yes, we’ve had this discussion before! When I was working on a Holocaust story, I read so many accounts that were so horrific, we talked at the time about what the writer’s duty is to include – I mean, to honour those involved by telling the truth, and yet not to exploit their experiences by…
RM: Exactly. And also remaining true to your character and your story. However, sometimes research can take you down the most unexpected paths and you find true stories that you never knew or expected and you think, “I MUST use that!”
KD: Yes, I know what you mean. I found a video clip online which had been sneaked out of North Korea. It was the execution of a village man, with the whole of the village surrounding him. It made me stop in my tracks and I did question the morals of using it, but at the same time, it was very powerful, and gives the reader such a good idea of what really happens there.
How can you write about something you’ve never experienced?
RM: This is a thorny one. I’ve heard the argument that one must have been to a place to write about it, one must have experienced something to write about it. I have to say, I think it’s cobblers. That’s what the imagination is for! My answer to this one is always Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage – one of the most moving and important novels on war ever written, yet Crane never fought in the Civil War. Besides, who is going to pay for me to visit South Africa or even Kent for that matter? I could just about manage a trip to a hop farm, but as a fledgling novelist I certainly can’t afford a trip round the world!
KD: Ha ha! No, and as an historical author, you’d need a time machine! I would’ve loved to have visited Baghdad, or North Korea, but the practicalities make it too difficult. Also with North Korea, as all visitors are escorted by government officials, I doubt you would get a realistic view of the country. I think it’s important to remember that although the setting is factual, the story is fiction. Also maybe not falling into the trap of stereotypes. I once had a comment as to why I hadn’t included the markets in Baghdad as they are so rich in colour, taste, sounds, etc, but maybe they are especially to us as Westerners, but if you live with them all the time, their impact isn’t that great.
RM: I agree completely. You can’t represent everything of a time or a country in one story. And if you try, you’re in danger of writing a documentary and not a novel. I’ve thrown novels across the room for preaching at me or teaching me every last detail about Victoriana or pig-farming or whatever. You must balance your research with your plot and make it serve your story, not become the story in itself.
KD: Yes, my first draft of A Brighter Fear included a scene where all the prisoners were released from Abu Ghraib on Saddam’s instruction as his celebration for winning the election. It was so absurd I wanted to include it, but in the end it was irrelevant to the story, so was cut.
RM: Quite. Don’t only write what you know, write whatever you want to write.
Rebecca Mascull and Kerry Drewery will be appearing at the Filter Festival 2013, Cleethorpes Library, Tues 29th October 7.30 pm, as ‘Writing Friends’. They will give readings from their work and a Q & A session. More details soon on each author’s Twitter / Facebook pages.
Rebecca Mascull’s debut novel THE VISITORS will be published in hardcover by Hodder & Stoughton in January 2014. Visit Rebecca’s website, follow her on Twitter, and like her Facebook page for more information.
Kerry Drewery’s first novel A Brighter Fear, about a young Iraqi girl trying to survive through the war, was published by HarperCollins (2012), and was shortlisted for the Leeds Book Awards. Her follow-up, A Dream of Lights (2013), is the story of a teenager trying to survive the harsh reality of life in North Korea. Kerry was a finalist in the CBBC drama writing competition and is currently working on her third novel. Follow Kerry on Twitter and like her Facebook page for more information.