It's an odd truth that most writers will do almost anything other than write. If I speak to any author friends during the working day, I can guarantee that a good percentage of them will be doing anything but committing some words to the big white screen.
As well as online avoidance methods ? tweeting, Facebooking, chasing glittery shoes on eBay ? we load washing machines, tidy our desks, turn out stairwell cupboards, and stare at blank walls. Writers, more than anyone else I know, can turn procrastination into an art form. If you write for long enough though, or are clever about it, you can claim you are doing this legitimately. Or, as I prefer to call it, Research.
I shouldn't love research. I never really enjoyed the factual stuff at school; history and geography bored me. (I suspect, like most teenagers, I just assumed I knew everything already). But 10 years in journalism knocked that out of me. Work as a daily news reporter and you have to become an instant expert in whatever they throw you at: motorway fires, company finance, minor members of the royal family ? you're on it. Each day you turn up at a new event and several hours later turn out 500–1000 authoritative words that suggest you knew everything about it. And once I began writing books, I found I had a habit that I couldn't break.
Now, I know some writers who never do a jot of research. They write whole scenes in hospitals having watched two episodes of ER (and even then mostly staring at George Clooney). They throw the odd question out on Twitter ? "Hey, anyone tell me how I amputate a gangrenous leg?" ? and sketch the details. And that's enough for them.
But when I write a book, I need to be immersed into an entire new world. I need to feel like I know my setting, my subject, as if I were there.
Among my temporary expertises I can include the finer points of French haute école dressage, the care of a Guarneri violin, the migratory habits of the humpback whale, and the design of ? and how to set fire to ? an Illustrious-class Aircraft Carrier (a split pipe in the high pressure feed pump in the engine room, if you're curious).
When I wrote a book set on the aircraft carrier (The Ship of Brides), I persuaded the Royal Navy to let me aboard one of theirs, the better to learn the little details that actually bring a story to life ? that newcomers to an aircraft carrier bruise their foreheads until they remember to duck through compartment doors, that fresh water is a constant preoccupation, that deck hockey is frequently scuppered by the loss of pucks overboard.
When I decided to set my latest book, The Last Letter from Your Lover, partly in 1960, I knew that while sitting in front of several box sets of Mad Men would be fun, it wasn't going to be enough. I took myself off to the British Newspaper Library and read and printed off pages and pages of the newspapers of the time, plastering the walls of my office with them. Surrounding yourself with newspapers of the day tells you all sorts of things: the names that were popular (I can confirm that there were a lot of Ethels), the preoccupations, the political backdrop ? and the advertisements.
Oh! The advertisements. Refrigerators that "make no sound," girdles for the "older" woman (that would be over the age of 30), the drinks, the shoes, the strange health tonics. And buried deep within them, a four-page supplement on "Asbestos ? The Wonder Mineral!", illustrated by a photograph of a smiling model balancing a loose pile of the stuff on the palm of her hand.
First I got an involuntary chill ? What happened to that girl? ? and then, the pragmatic, writerly part of me thought: what a gift. I saw the possibilities of the heroine's wealthy industrialist husband owning asbestos mines and factories, the involuntary sense of doom that modern readers would glean from it, even if the characters only saw its opportunities. I saw the potential symbolism ? in a story about illicit love, this husband is, after all, the man who tries to tamp her down, who tries to extinguish the things that bring her alive.
And from that one random bit of research the book suddenly acquired a whole other dimension. Which is the best kind of research. As is meeting really interesting people. I corresponded long after I finished writing with Lt. Simon Jones, who talked me through the grittier side of life on an aircraft carrier (trust me, you do not want to know how they wake each other up on board). And I loved my lengthy chats with the archivist of a global cruise company, even when he rang me up to correct me that no, the boat that left Southampton on 5 March, 1953 would not have left at 10:30 a.m., but 9:15. I have met French dressage riders, family lawyers, musicians, and whale watchers, who infected me with their passions, and left me with new loves of my own.
Less good is the research that you know in your heart is really work avoidance: flicking through books or tinkering around on the Internet reading information you'll never use. I've learned, over 10 books, that this usually means there is a problem with the book as a whole.
Worse is when research alerts you to gaping holes in your plot. There is a phrase in journalism ? "one question too many" ? that jokingly refers to the one fact that tears down your whole premise. I recently had to rewrite a whole chunk of my latest book after lengthy chats with a specialist lawyer revealed that, because of a technical issue, the key court case could not have gone ahead. It's true that 99 percent of its readers would have been none the wiser, but I had to change it. I can't bear the possibility of someone writing to tell me that I'd got it wrong (and they nearly always do).
Sometimes research can bring you down. I've spent almost a year working on a book set in German-occupied France in 1916, most specifically looking at life within concentrations camps there. After I read the umpteenth account of starvation, of watery mangel wurzel soup and foul black bread that required a billhook to cut it, I thought longingly of Jenny Colgan, a writer friend whose book Meet Me at the Cupcake Café has been a hit here this summer. Her research for this book comprised weeks and weeks of inventing and testing delicious recipes for cupcakes. And I wondered whether I could perhaps make life a little easier for myself.
Or as my husband puts it: "So when are you going to write a book involving a luxury hotel in the middle of the Maldives?" I'm working on it, hon, I'm working on it.