Research: the Personal Touch


How we can help make our writing striking and authentic

What readers enjoy is the memorable, vivid details that make writing come to life. When we undertake research, books, and increasingly the internet, can tell us so much but it is often people’s personal recollections of an event that supply the individual, anecdotal information that stick in the mind.

I once needed to do some research into Croydon in World War Two. I gleaned a lot from the usual channels, but it was ninety year old Betty, who had lived nearby, and whose shopkeeper father kept his excess stock of fireworks under her bed throughout the Blitz, who provided the best reminiscences.

This week I have been trying to write a scene where a woman has a ski accident in Czechoslovakia in 1936. Try as I might I couldn’t find out the details I needed. A trawl of the internet revealed an email exchange three years ago between a Czech man, whose great, great grandfather had represented his country at ski jumping in the 1932 winter Olympics, and the curator of a museum in Lake Placid, New York state. I wrote to the curator. Did she still have the man’s email address and was she prepared to give it to me? She emailed back in the affirmative. I wrote to Matej, who not only replied promptly, but told me that coincidentally he was visiting a ski museum in the town where his grandfather had lived the very next day! If I could supply him with a list of questions he would gladly try to find the information I needed. Brilliant!

Sometimes in our research we just need to go the extra mile – there are often great rewards if we do. And how much more authentic and memorable our writing becomes as a result. You can’t beat the personal touch!