Facing the facts

[This article first appeared in July-August edition of The Northerly, the bi-monthly publication of the Byron Writers Festival]

The idea of ‘research’ for fiction will of course mean different things to different people, depending on style, genre and inclination. For Sarah Armstrong's new novel Promise, it meant study, a series of interviews and careful fact-checking in order to lend authenticity to a book that depicts the work of a number of social institutions.

“There were times when I was writing it and crying because I put my own daughter in the shoes of the little girl,” says Sarah Armstrong of the emotional toll of writing Promise, her third novel. The book explores how a Sydney woman, Anna, reacts when she suspects the five-year-old girl next door is being abused, and asks uncomfortable, challenging and essential questions about our responsibilities for the children around us.

It was a book that saw former journalist Armstrong conducting more vigorous and comprehensive research than for her previous novels, His Other House and Salt Rain, as she set about ensuring that scenes involving healthcare, legal procedures, child protection institutions and more were as accurate as possible. Here, she talks to northerly about how she approached the potentially daunting task of conducting research for writing fiction, and offers some guidance for less experienced writers.

How did the research you undertook for Promise compare to that you did for His Other House and Salt Rain? I did more research for this novel than either of the other two. For Salt Rain the only research I recall doing was interviewing local dairy farmers. I lived in the place I set it and it was very internal, an emotional drama I guess, where I only had to look at myself.

His Other House had a doctor as the protagonist, and in order for it to be credible I had to do a bit of research, although I’m really fascinated by all things medical so I drew on some of my own fascination of how the body works and gave that to the doctor. I interviewed a local doctor, a general physician. I spent several hours with him and followed up with email questions, and that was the main thrust of the research.

For Promise I had to talk to people in child protection, law and police – all areas really foreign to me. I’ve never set foot in a courtroom in my life, even when I was a journalist. I was a little bit humbled and embarrassed by that, so I went and sat in various court cases in Lismore and interviewed former police and current police and people in child protection.

How did the idea for Promise first arise? I saw a TV report a about a little boy whose mother was charged with his murder. The report described how various neighbours had reported him to community services because they were afraid for his wellbeing. Then I read an article about how the case workers with community services got those reports, but they could only visit a certain number of children that week and they had to figure out who was the most at risk. He wasn’t on that list and he died.

I put myself in the shoes of the neighbours and wondered how they’d feel. It was a situation which interests me and which touches on a subject that’s close to my heart.  Since becoming a mother, my awareness of the vulnerability of children has been really heightened.

What are the dangers of not conducting comprehensive research for a book like Promise? When I’m reading fiction, although I know it’s an imaginary world, I expect it to be credible. I read a novel, which I won’t name, which had a whole section about IVF, which I know a lot about, and this writer got a couple of facts really wrong. You want to enter a novel’s universe and believe it’s true, and when those facts were wrong, it shattered my belief in the writer and the story. And I don’t want that to happen when people are reading my books insofar as its possible. I want them to read it and believe it’s true. And I’m a journalist and I like to be accurate.

I write realism, I don’t write magic realism or fantasy, so that’s why research is so important for me.

What were the skills from journalism that you found yourself employing for research for Promise? One of the big things I learnt when I was a journalist was how to listen to answers. When I first started out I’d be always thinking about my next question while someone was answering the previous question, and I wasn’t listening to what they were saying. What I learnt was to listen to the answer, because so often there needs to be a follow-up question.

I think I learnt to ask concise questions and open questions, not closed questions, and probably just a confidence in my right to ask people questions.

What was the process of identifying whom you needed to talk to for Promise? It was almost always through friends of friends. I have friends who, say, work in health, and I would ask them ‘Can I talk to you about this issue?’ and then they might refer me to someone else. That was the way I found people, and that’s good because there are always different perspectives. I didn’t have to approach people by cold calling them.

The timing is significant too – I actually write quite a lot from my own imagining of how something would happen, and then I research. There are pluses and pitfalls to doing it that way. For example, I wrote a whole scene in a hospital and did a lot of research to get it accurate, but a few people said I was stretching it a bit, and finally the doctor I spoke to said, ‘I think you’re pushing it to say this happened’. So I ditched about 7,000 words of a beautifully written hospital scene.

It would have been good if I’d started that research a little earlier to avoid wasting so many hours writing. But I wasn’t that upset: most important to me is that it’s accurate. That was an example of research getting in the way of my ‘poetic imagination’.

When you approached organisations or people you didn’t know for facts and guidance, how did you describe the project you were working on to them when you introduced yourself? I tend say I’m a writer, or I write fiction, and Pan MacMillan are publishing my novel – it lets them know it’s going to be published so they take you seriously. The first person I spoke to at NSW police was breathtakingly unhelpful. Then I rang back and got on to someone else, who was unbelievably helpful. There was no difference in the way I approached these people, so sometimes it’s just the luck of the draw.

If it’s a little general inquiry, and it’s in their interests to get it right, they will respond.

If there a budding novelist who didn’t have your publishing history, do you think it would be difficult for them to approach people on a ‘cold’ basis for the type of research you carried out? Can you offer any advice for someone writing a novel for the first time and needs input from sources like police, or health and legal professionals? I think the best thing is to do as much research as you can on your own first. So use the internet, find articles written on the topic, relevant academic publications, and that can also lead you to the right person. Someone quoted in a newspaper article or who wrote a paper could end up being your source.

Show them that you’ve done them the respect of doing your own groundwork first, that you’re not expecting them to tell you the most basic information about the topic. But if they’ve got the time people like to talk about their passion and what they do.

So you write a first draft before you embark on the research? So you know what questions you need answered, yes. My first drafts are incredibly rough, I don’t waste time picking the right word or making the sentences smooth and flow at that point. I’m just getting the rough plot down. It was a bit tragic losing that hospital scene, I don’t want to do that too often.

How do you feel about the old maxim ‘write what you know’? I write about people’s human responses to situations. I’m not exploring institutions. I already knew the emotional trajectory of the story, which was for me the main thing; the rest was about making sure it was plausible. This book became quite personal for me because I was asking myself what my responsibility was for the children around me – since I’ve had my own child I have been asking myself that. Writing it was my own personal investigation and inquiry into that, and I’ve come to my own position I guess, and I’m much clearer on what I would do if I was concerned about a child in a situation like Anna’s. I just always write about questions that interest me.

How much do you enjoy research and how long did the process take? The research occurs in dribs and drabs while I’m writing, it’s a bit hard to quantify it. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed stepping back into that journalistic role, but the thing I enjoyed most was meeting people I wouldn’t normally meet, and having a kind of permission to ask them questions about something of deep interest to me.

It comes together when I write something from that research, that’s when it has real meaning and is really satisfying. BS