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SWF 2011

SWF2011 REVIEW: How research can turn an ordinary book into a great one

Sunday, May 22, 2011
Review of The Vagabonds session at Sydney Writers' Festival 2011

I'm sure many of the people in the audience for this session of Sydney Writers Festival are budding authors. Like me, they are keen to get the ink on the page and to see their idea turned into prose that will excite, intrigue, move and captivate their readers. I'm also pretty sure that after listening to David Mitchell and Daniel Swift everyone left with a new and deeper understanding of how important thorough research is to make their work really authentic.

Both David and Daniel’s most recent work are examples of how good research can make the difference between an ordinary book and a great one.

David’s most recent novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is about a young Dutch clerk and is set in Japan in the late eighteenth century. Daniel’s book Bomber County is a memorial to his grandfather and the part he played as a bomber pilot in the allied bombing campaigns of World War 2. They are very different books, but what links them is the solid research that went in to making them authentic, interesting and compelling.

From library to internet
Admirably facilitated by Louise Adler - CEO and publisher-in-chief of Melbourne University Publishing - the session allowed David and Daniel to describe how they undertook extensive research on their subject. Both had spent a lot of time with their heads buried in books in the library or trawling through the internet. Daniel had also made a point of visiting the places and towns that were key to his story.

As David pointed out, "Readers know when you don't know stuff. It's a bit like an iceberg, nine tenths of your research is hidden and not immediately obvious to the reader, but without it your work would sink without trace."

However, part of the skill of a writer is knowing when enough is enough in research terms, and not overdoing it to show your reader you spent countless hours in the library or on the internet finding out details that make you sound like a bit of a smart-arse. "Don't do the background on the background," is David's advice.

Interviews and first hand experiences
Daniel spent a lot of time travelling to the towns in Europe that had been bombed during the War and speaking to people who had been affected directly or indirectly by the role his grandfather played. Talking to people enabled him to bring the humanity aspect into the story. He did say that although people were generally very open and willing to talk to him, he was always aware that there may have been significant experiences that were too traumatic for people to tell and have been pushed to the very deep recesses of their memory.

That is where the art of the storyteller comes in. It's not an academic exercise you are undertaking, it is a work of fiction. The trick, or more likely the skill, is in being able to take that research and weave your story seamlessly around it.

Explore the unexpected
One of David’s top tips is that you need to let your curiosity take you down paths you might not always have planned. "Let your research take you places you didn't expect, happenstance is a wonderful thing for an author."

Daniel’s top tip was to find the best archives in libraries, but wherever possible travel to the locations you have in your story and talk to people.

This was an entertaining and inspiring insight into how two great writers really understand their craft and the importance of good research. I will read their books, and every other book, with a new and better appreciation of the amount of work that has gone in to make them stand out from the crowd. I’m sure all the budding writers in the audience will now approach their research with renewed enthusiasm; it can make all the difference to a great story.

Guest blog post by Al McKillop. You can find his Businessman's Belly - Down Under blog here.


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