Every wondered how a writer goes about researching information for their latest creation? Ever pondered the lengths they might go to in order to ensure every detail is as accurate as possible? Well, wonder no more, OutWalkers novelist Fiona Shaw describes the crazy situations she found herself in the midst of her creative process…
You might have thought, if you were writing a novel set in the future, that it would free you from the kind of research and finding out that you definitely have to do to set a novel convincingly in the past. But I reckon I’ve had to find out just as much for Outwalkers, which is set roughly three generations into the future, as I ever did for any of my novels set in the past.
I wanted to set my novel in a UK that is very like the one we know now, with a few important differences. But I suspect that even if I’d set the novel on an imaginary planet at an undefined future point, I would still have had to find a lot of things out to invent that future world. Because we use the real to give texture to what we imagine, whether it’s in the past, the present, or a future.
So here, in no particular order, are five of the things I had to find out about in the writing of Outwalkers:
1. How dogs fight: this makes for disturbing watching on YouTube. Also how foxes play: I struck lucky here, and happened upon a fox trying to persuade a small dog to play, while walking through Brompton Cemetery early one morning on my way to Earls Court tube.
2. How to break into a lorry – Thank you to the lorry driver in the lorry park of the Michaelwood services on the M5 near Bristol. I think he must have believed me when I said I was writing a novel, because he showed me how the security system on his lorry worked, and why it would be hard to break into. And he was very helpful in discussing with me which kind of lorry my gang of kids would be able to break into, and pointing one out to me, parked nearby.
3. Whether you can fall off the escalator in John Lewis department store, Oxford St: perhaps I took too many photos. Anyway, I was getting peculiar looks, so I moved to the Bed Department, where I also needed to work out sight lines, if you were lying in the beds. That didn’t alarm the sales staff as much, but I didn’t want to get up, and nearly bought a new mattress!
4. I needed to find out all kinds of things about the tunnels below and behind the London Tube tunnels: deserted stations, the Victorian sewage system, the massive utility tunnels, etc. And also about what you might find living in them, besides people: rats (obviously), blind mice, spiders, crabs, eels, fish, and a bunch of other crawling, creeping, hiding out creatures.
5. Most tedious, but necessary, piece of research ever: watching a twelve-minute non-forwardable video about how to fold an exterior retractable ladder. I got the information I needed, but did feel like I’d lost some essential minutes of my given lifespan.
I also travelled to North-West Scotland, evaded the security guards at a deserted hospital site outside Bristol, interviewed a professor of physics about nano technology, and an ex-controller of freight trains about how long journeys took, had my daughter take photos of the end of Bond Street tube platform, (including the Danger sign, crucially) wandered around a junk yard, admiring eviscerated cars, and walked up and down the streets of Berwick upon Tweed to plot my gang’s escape. But all of this, and all the rest is only as good as the story told. And it’s the readers who decide on that, not the writer.