I need to know what the birds flying overhead sound like, and how the sharp, winter air feels when it creeps its way through my many layers of clothing.
Sometimes, strange things happen that you could never plan for when researching. When I was in the middle of writing my debut novel My Map Of You – which, as you will probably know, is set in Zakynthos, a place I already knew very well having lived there – I decided to fly out in early October to gather some more notes. I had pre-determined at that stage that my main character, Holly, was going to get caught in a storm, and had, in fact, already written that chapter. As it turned out, though, I’d chosen one of the island’s rainiest days in history to arrive, and the pilot was almost forced to land in nearby Kefalonia because the storm raging above Zakynthos was so bad. Luckily, he braved on through, but I’d be willing to bet that I was the only person on that plane who was thrilled by the sight of such inclement weather. While everyone else fled from their loungers and took refuge in the hotels and tavernas, this idiot was standing in the middle of the beach, sniffing the moist air, listening to the crash of thunder and jumping with joy every time the lightening cut across the sky. Needless to say, I rewrote that chapter in its entirety.
When it came to researching my upcoming novel, The Place We Met, I took someone with me for the first time. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how wise a decision that was, because in the past I’d always relished traveling alone, and I was concerned that I’d end up distracted by having my younger brother in tow. Not so! Brilliantly, he actually provided me with one of the book’s most pivotal scenes – no spoilers here, but I can tell you that blood was shed – and noticed things that I could easily have missed. It was also great to have someone there to bounce ideas off as I strolled around, not to mention a drinking partner. Well, it was New Year, after all.
Researching is without a doubt one of the best parts about the whole novel-writing process, and that’s not just because it basically means a holiday! For me, it’s where the story really begins to come alive. I will have my characters, but now I get to show them around this new environment, and see how they react to things within it. All the ideas I had at the planning stage are now fleshed out with colours, sounds, smells and emotions – and I can barely get the inspired words down in my notebook fast enough. I take hundreds of photos, too, and make recordings on my phone of music and general noise. It’s amazing how quickly you can forget what a piece of music is like, or which carol those singers are performing in Como’s main piazza. I need all the pieces of the sensory jigsaw before I can hope to put them all together and create something as close to the truth as possible for the reader.
So, whether I’m driving along a Spanish motorway the wrong way (I don’t recommend it), swimming in a Greek cave, crunching through the snow in a Prague park at dawn or trudging halfway up a mountain in Italy, I promise you all that what you’re reading in my novels is as close to reality as I can describe for you. There’s a big old world out there for me to explore, and as soon as I have got under the surface of each location, I will be sharing them with you.