Alongside all the fear and the financial woes and everything, I hate being unable to go check out places and things that I might want my characters to experience. (There’s also losing access to older research notes and books in storage, which is infuriating when you’re mulling the resurrection of mothballed projects.)
But wait a minute - writers shouldn’t mind being locked down, right?
Wrong. Well, for me anyway. At least when I’m trying to visualise settings and suchlike. But how unusual is it that I have to picture every scene I write? Am I alone in absolutely needing to go to that Czech uranium mine in person, on foot, in order to see which hill lies behind which – even though I’m probably going to play fast and loose with the topography? After all, I’m not writing a screenplay, where thinking visually is critical. And the danger of wanting to see it is that I’ll then want to show it, which means I have to stand over myself with my editor’s blue pencil/scissors/shotgun, nipping any over-descriptive writing in the bud.
But I can’t fight the urge. It’s part of how and why I write. Sure, there’s an imaginary successful author in my head, goading me, Laurence Olivier-style, ‘You should learn to create, dear boy...’ but sorry, I need help picturing it first.
What’s that? Street View, you say? I remember how exciting it was when it arrived, and it’s a godsend, for checking certain technicalities. But for real look and feel, not so much. Just like when you revisit your old childhood haunts and they all seem somehow smaller, the detached fisheye of the Google car makes everything a dream sequence - or the Easy Rider acid trip. And that’s even before you deal with the time factor. (I once wrote a sub-Harlan Ellison story about the implications of its virtual world being a patchwork of different years.)
I’ll tell you a different story though. This is something that happened to me ages ago and while it doesn’t exactly support my argument about needing to put yourself in situ, it does encapsulate one of the great delights of research: let’s call it, with a nod to ‘The One With The Maggots’, serendipity.
So I was in Cape Town doing some research into the Victorian-era Breakwater convict station. I have fond memories of studying superintendent's journals and warders’ logs all day at the archives in the old Roeland Street Gaol before strolling down to the Company’s Garden for an iced coffee while the rush hour subsided. But a problem persisted. The imposing Breakwater Prison that’s now a posh hotel and business school is the one they built right next to the old one at the beginning of the 20th Century and most of the original is long gone. Added to which, the quarries the prisoners dug were being repurposed to become the basins and marinas that now define the V&A Waterfront. How could I even begin to picture what that harbour area had been like in 1890, when the novel I was researching was set? In the period photos, the forests of masts and ranks of warehouses obscured the finer details. I just couldn’t find the right visual record.
To rub it in, Captain Penfold (now there’s a story), or one of his officers, made mention in the 1880s logs of a few trusties getting detailed to construct a model of the harbour – breakwater, prison, quarries and all – for a trade exhibition or something, in return for extra privileges (and believe me, you wanted those back then). THAT’S WHAT I NEED! I cursed, before carefully turning the page.
A couple of days later, my mother and I visited the maritime museum that had opened in the emerging waterfront development. She wanted to show me the model of the Union-Castle steamer that had first taken her to England. (When we found it, disturbingly, she was able to point to exact spots along the rails where so-and-so had tried to kiss her, or whatever...) But what should we encounter as soon as we walked in... improbably preserving with eye-watering detail, in hundred-year-old-plus make-do materials, every corner of the prison yards, every carbon arc lamp, every tunnel or cutting for the narrow-gauge cocopans and Brunel-gauge locomotives, every crane and dragline in the quarries...?
Serendipity, like I say. But you have to go looking for something to stumble on it.
Roll on the great unlockdown. And in the meantime, stay safe.
I've been writing for as long as I can remember (I think my first letter was a P). I got a degree writing about other people's writing and ever since then I've earned a living writing commercially, one way or another. But I never stopped writing and refining my own stuff. I just didn't do anything with it, until now.