Listening to Dr Helen Rappaport discussing her latest book, The Race to Save the Romanovs, her account of her detailed research was impressive and striking. Certainly, as a historian, she needs to be factual yet also to weave a fascinating, engaging story. Fortunately for Ms Rappaport, she is a linguist, a fluent Russian speaker having studied the language many years ago at my Alma mater, Leeds University.
She mentioned the costs of such painstaking research and they are considerable, as any writer who puts the time and effort in, knows. Do you ever recoup the cost? Ms Rappaport may well for she is now a ‘name’ but most of us will not; for most writers, it is about the love of the subject, the cause, the desire to change something in someone’s world.
At a far lesser level than Helen Rappaport, I spent a good deal of time researching my forthcoming book (2019) on Pamela Colman Smith. There was no way I could afford to go to America, seeking out the libraries and streets of Brooklyn, for example, so some of my research had to be online, for some of it involved paying for access to records and photos. There is a great deal of information out there but very little is free.
Fortunately for me, however, some of the research was local in Bude, and slightly less local on the Lizard in Cornwall, where I spent a fabulous week visiting all the places which may have been pertinent to Pamela during her time there. I also visited Exeter to view the archival material. One element included a visit to Smallhythe in Kent, and I also purchased many, many books.
So, writing a book, especially non-fiction (but it applies to both) is expensive. It costs time and money to research properly. Within fiction, a story can be utterly ruined by poor, inaccurate detail.
For non-fiction, research is imperative. It is also perhaps the most exciting part of writing, the unending quest to know more. You need, as an author, that sense of intrigue and curiosity to continue for research, writing and editing can be a slog for little pecuniary reward.
A book can take years to complete. The red herrings, the guesses that come to nothing, the serendipitous opportunities that shed real light on an issue, are all part and parcel of writing, as is immersing yourself in the life of the book you are creating, the characters, real or imagined. Helen Rappaport’s talk on this in the beautiful setting of St Mary’s Church at Appledore said exactly this.