Some time ago, I was asked to comment on the research I did for my books. This is what I wrote:
I was a bit daunted when I read that the topic of this new round of blogs was an experience had, or research done, in order to write about it. Research? Blimey, I thought. That sounds a bit serious for the sort of books I write! Then, thinking more closely, I realized that I do sort of research my books, even if it’s on quite a superficial level. I am often getting to a point in a story when I realize I have strayed into an area I know little about, or I get halfway through an illustration before I wonder what the thing I’m drawing really looks like!
Then, it’s a trawl along my bookshelves or, more frequently now, a session on the internet that can supply me with visual reference, (sometimes dubious) historical facts, or just a feel for a place or people.
When I wrote about Jakeman’s Patented Steam-powered Rhinoceros in Charlie Small’s first adventure, Gorilla City, I had the image of Durer’s famous woodcut of a rhino at the back of my mind. I had always admired this anatomically inaccurate beast (Durer never actually saw a rhinoceros) and when I came to illustrate my mechanical rhino, I used his incredible drawing as reference.
Similarly, when I began to write about Wild Bob Ffrance, leader of the Daredevil Desperados Of Destiny (a later adventure of Charlie’s) I turned to one of the most famous outlaws of all, Billy The Kid.
I wasn’t trying to make Wild Bob look like Billy, but I wanted the ‘feel’ to be right. And, as so often happens with me, a few minutes looking up a picture reference turned into finding out more about Billy The Kid, downloading an audio-biography and buying books on the Wild West,always a favourite period of mine since studying American History at school (so long ago, it’s almost an historical period in itself!) Learning about Billy’s involvement with The Regulators during the Lincoln County Wars, gave me lots of background detail that I could use to colour my gang of ne’er-do-wells.
Secondhand bookshops supply me with a great deal of quirky research material, and a book I bought over thirty years ago finally earned its 10p price tag. The Cowboy, by Ross Salmon (published 1952) told me just how a lariat is thrown – vital information for when Wild Bob teaches Charlie various cowboy skills! It also supplied a handy cowboy dictionary. Priceless.
When I’m developing a character in one of my stories, I like to find the right name for them as early as possible. It needs to fit the person I’m writing about, reflect their character in some way. Wild Bob Ffrance might not sound like an obvious name for a cowboy living outside the law, but it was taken from a great, great uncle I’d discovered whilst researching my family history.
Yes, I know family history’s a bit nerdish, but I started looking into it casually about ten years ago, and I’m afraid it quickly became a bit of an obsession. One of the most colourful characters I discovered was Robert Wilson Ffrance, the illegitimate son of the Squire of Rawcliffe in Lancashire, who inherited the family estate and a huge annual income at the age of 19 and promptly began to lead a life of total dissipation. He was already known as The Mad Squire, Mad Jack and the Rawcliffe Infant, before marrying my great grandfather’s sister and his life would make a book in itself – perhaps I should write it!
He was up in court and in the papers on a regular basis for, amongst other things, setting fire to an occupied windmill to celebrate bonfire night; ducking the solicitor sent to defend him in a horse trough; riding two horses to death in a non-stop dash from the south coast to London; allegedly shooting a pack of hounds for a bet; stealing large amounts of jewellery; badger baiting; fighting – oh, you couldn’t make it up!
So, when I was looking for a name for the wild leader of a band of young desperados, dear old uncle Bob sprang immediately to mind. I don’t know if any of this counts as proper research, but these are the sort of things I turn to, dipping in and out of a variety of sources often halfway through a paragraph, to help build the foundations of a character or story.