Write what you know. It may be a cliché, but it still makes a lot of sense. After all, why waste days, months, or even decades locked away in a dusty library or lost down an endless online rabbit hole researching the typical diet of an Armenian peasant in the late Seventeenth Century, when you can have your protagonist work in an office, subsist on a diet of Subway and spend their evenings sprawled in front of Netflix instead? That way, you can cut down on all that pesky fact-checking and focus instead on crafting believable characters and a compelling narrative arc.
At least that’s the theory…
When I wrote my first novel, Real Monsters, back in 2014, I totally eschewed this advice. Rather than settling for the office/Subway/Netflix scenario, I instead decided to write about a soldier whose unit becomes hopelessly lost during a bloody middle-Eastern conflict. This despite the fact I had precisely zero military experience, had never held a gun, and had never stepped foot in a desert. In order to make up for these shortcomings, I spent three months prior to writing engaged in a sort of DIY military boot camp. I did early morning runs with bricks in my backpack. I visited a firing range. I caught, killed and cooked my own food. All in all it was a horrible experience, and although on balance I’d say the research helped me write a better a novel, it also caused significant problems, particularly at home. Listening to my wife explaining to my whimpering children why Daddy was covered in chicken blood was a just one of a series of extremely low points in my life at that time.
And so, when it came to writing my next novel, I made a solemn vow to my family. No more research. My protagonist would live in England. He’d have a stable family and work a crappy day job. He’d be an avatar for me, basically. This time, I was confident I could concentrate on the noble art of writing a novel without leaving the cosy confines of my kitchen table. Or at least without murdering any sentient beings along the way.
Things started well. True to my word, I began writing about Adam: an English everyman who inhabits a corporate world I know only too well from years of soul-destroying desk jobs. He has a wife, two kids, a car, a mortgage – all pressures, I’ve conveniently borrowed from my own life. This was going to be easy, I told myself.
Unfortunately, this was about as easy as it got.
Although I had a very rough sketch for Wild Life before I began, I tend to write by the seat of my pants, freewheeling without any real idea of where the story is taking me. And so it was with an increasing sense of horror that I realised my protagonist’s comfy domestic and professional life was about to spiral out of control, as the novel lurched into surreal territory. Fleeing his responsibilities, Adam begins sleeping rough in a local park, where he discovers a secret community of middle-aged survivalists living secretly off the land, growing their own food, hunting squirrels and pigeons. All things I had little to no experience of. And so, with a heavy heart, the dreaded cycle of ‘research’ started again.
For the next few months, I took up bush craft, foraging for food and building shelters from twine and leaves. I learnt how to make a bow and arrow. I learnt how to start a fire with a lump of flint. I ate mud, moss and mushrooms. I even spent a few weekends squatting on my local park bench (I can’t claim I did much sleeping – the cold and general sense of dread was far too great for that.) At the end of it all I was, predictably, a wreck of a man. I smelt bad. I lost weight. I was ratty and tired all the time. My wife hated me. My kids were scared of me. I nearly lost my job. For the second time in three years, I’d put my family and my health on the line for the sake of a book.
So was it worth it?
I guess that depends on your definition of ‘worth it’. In terms of capturing the little details that really bring a book to life, the experience has been invaluable. Wild Life came out about a month ago now, and the reviews so far have been strong. Many people have commented on how ‘richly imagined’ the world of the park is (little do they know.) As for my family? They all forgave me, eventually. My youngest son will even sit on my lap again. And I’ve also made them a promise that I’ll definitely cut back on the research for my third novel. In fact, I’ve gone a step further and set the next book entirely on an idyllic Mediterranean island, so hopefully that will provide an excuse for a nice family holiday.
Of course, I haven’t broken it to them yet that it’s a post-apocalyptic disaster novel set on a tourist resort just after the world economy crashes…
Still, a holiday’s a holiday, right?