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Research tips

February 10, 2012

Research tips is the theme of the session I am running for creative writers on Wednesday.  One of the tips is to research or visit the setting of your story.  You might remember this as the first of twelve tips in the post ’20 + 12 tips for 2012.’  The Arvon Book of Life Writing also recommends making pilgrimages to the places connected to your story be it fiction or non-fiction.

A few years ago I revisited Flatt Woods in Barnard Castle where my nana used to take my as a child.  I spent many a weekend at her house and one of our favourite activities was to go down to Scarr Top where the ruins of the castle stand and follow a circular path through the woods and back to the street where she lived.  She would point out plants and flowers that I should not touch such as deadly nightshade and laburnum keys. ( My paternal granda balanced this with knowledge of the names of wildflowers growing in the fields near Evenwood.)

I revisited the woods with my husband in September 2009.  The visit seemed to both stir memories and heighten my senses.  I jotted down things that I noticed at the time in my writer’s notebook for future use.  The notes were as follows:

Phrases: Autumn came early to the woods that year, the year that Lhiannan’s father died.  It was twilight here in the woods where the sun struggled to penetrate the canopy.

Sounds; pigeons/doves cooing, water tumbling/cascading over the rocks, a single raven pierced the silence/stillness with its carrion call

Smells: woodsmoke and dog turds

N.B. We passed a couple, an adult dog and pup.  Dark-haired young man and a blonde girl.

A few months later I transposed the experience into the first chapter of a novel set in Teesdale in the tenth century.  Excerpts include:

Autumn came early to the woods that year, the year that Fritha’s father died in the ambush of Eric Bloodaxe at Stainmore Pass.  A death, which left her alone in the world except for the company of her ailing nan and Croke, the rook with a broken wing that she rescued as a fledgling.

She took a moment to stand still with her eyes closed to breath in the smell of leaf mould while soaking up the warmth of a beam of sunlight which penetrated the canopy.  A whiff of wood smoke tickled her nose… As she listened to the birds cawing in the branches above, she wondered if they gathered in the rookery to tell each other stories of their ancestors from overseas …

The call of a rook pierced the silence of the woods announcing the presence of others.  Before the two young people had time to react a wolfhound lumbered into view followed by a pup and Raefn Thorsson.

Recently I have been inspired to write a sequence of poems based on my father’s side of the family and hope to pay a visit to the area of the Pennines where they scraped a living.  This time I’ll take a digital camera as well as a notebook.

When you make your pilgrimage or site visit consider how you can weave notes taken at the time into current work.

Not Flatt Woods but Triffidlike Trees in Skiathos

Not Flatt Woods but Triffidlike Trees in Skiathos



From → Creative Writing

  1. I agree Judith that making a pilgrimage to the places connected to your story is a must where possible. I think in doing so one comes away with such rich detail – and notes and lists are great for recording these. In my own experience, when writing my novel The Sweet Track, going back to Somereset with the eye of a writer changed everything and gave my story a new depth and direction. As well as this it’s a great excuse for a day out – writers need never be bored!

    • Hi Avril. You’ve got me wondering now where to go for my next writer’s day out. It is true that notes taken at the scene add depth and authenticity to a story. Some of my students found creative ways of approaching this. One visited the areas where her grandmother lived to see it with her own eyes (as it is now), then went to the library to refer to old maps to understand how it was in the early 1900s. This was as near as she could get to seeing it with her grandmother’s eyes. Another student had the ingenious idea of using google earth as a research tool. She located an old family address and revisited the street via satellite without leaving the comfort of her own home! There must be other original ways of making a pilgrimage that we haven’t yet discovered.

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