Well, here in Edinburgh it’s been more of a whiteout, as snow and ice have kept the faint-of-heart indoors. I emerged like some premature gopher yesterday after two days inside. I watched men holding ski poles fall on their heads on thick slabs of ice that covered any footpath not salted or gritted. I walked home, knees bent, hunched as an old woman, skidding my way down to Canongate. So, you’d think I would be getting plenty of writing done?
I am, actually, thanks. Up to 15K since arriving here and taking up residence at a small table beside a radiator. It’s pretty fast writing statistically, I suppose, but it feels slow to me, if only because the research for this book has been with me so long, and because I currently have so much time in which to do it. You will have seen my earlier pictures of research materials I was bringing up with me. They are all now unpacked and waiting for me to read them. But there are a couple of things I forgot… yes, I forgot my own research: transcripts, interviews, maps – all the research I have already done. Why, oh why? I’ve spent much of this morning in a tailspin of looking and looking in the same file folders to convince myself that I hadn’t looked hard enough. I had. They are not here and I cannot go home to get them. Does this mean the end of my progress? Shall I give it all up and go shopping?
Of course not. The fact of the matter is that I know my story. I know the research I’ve already done and my fingers remember the transcripts I’ve already typed. I know I have internalised the research and am changing it and shifting it into new bits of story to make one that is truly my own. I know this – and yet I want the safety blanket of this paper, this proof that I know my stuff as a kind of signpost for when I get lost in my narrative. For when I can’t see where I’m going.
Research is a really important part of writing, whatever it is you’re writing. When dealing with history it is all the more important, though there are plenty of writers who will say they just write and factcheck later. I guess I have to put a blackout on my desire for my research – I have to stop looking outward for what I’m worried I can’t remember or will get wrong and trust that it’s all already inside, glowing. I don’t need more of what I already know – but that won’t stop me looking for all I still have yet to learn!
I couldn’t remember when blackouts went up, and many fine websites told me they went in 2 days before the war started, September 1939. That doesn’t work for my story, so I need to know the history – know the truth – and then write why something different is happening in mine. In my case, I’m writing about hundreds of empty bedrooms on the Isle of Man. No blackouts have gone in, I say, because there are no people there to switch the lights on. Is it true? Does it matter? Only if it makes a reader stop in their tracks and think, no, that doesn’t ring true – or if it stops a writer in her tracks, trying to justify a scene. Either way, in 2005 I met a man who was a joiner in 1940 on the Isle of Man and he remembered putting up blackouts, and that really is good enough for me – even if I can’t find the transcript I did of our interview.
I do not believe he had access to these fancy blackout kits, but they sure would have made his job easier. The joiner, by the name, was called Swimmer back then. You will meet him in my book, some day.