Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Research? But I write fiction! by Sherryl Clark

When I first starting writing chapter books and novels, I used a lot of stuff from my own life, but it wasn’t long before I realised that I would have to do some research for many of the things I wanted to include.

Of course, when I began my pirate novel, Pirate X, I assumed I’d just need to know about pirates and a bit about the 1700s, but soon my piles of books and folders of photocopied information grew and grew.

What are some of the particulars I had to track down?

We all know about pirates and gold doubloons! But those mostly came via Spanish ships sailing back from Central and South America. People who lived in 1717 used a variety of money. The American colonies had no currency of their own, and used everyone else’s. So a handful of money might include English shillings and pence, Dutch coins, Spanish gold and silver and French coins. A shopkeeper had to be very careful about their values. The easiest way was to weigh the coins on small scales.

What about food? In every century, people have eaten different food, depending on their ability to cook and what they could grow. Very few people back then ate green vegetables like salad, or fruit, so they suffered a range of diseases such as scurvy and rickets.

I ventured far and wide to learn about sailing ships, including how to use the ropes to raise and lower sails, and how a ship was laid out below decks. Did my pirates sleep in hammocks or on the deck? How do you make a ship’s biscuit? How long does meat last before it goes rotten?

Moving on from pirates, some of the other research I’ve done has also meant travelling.

For Runaways, I spent some time standing in the central train station in Perth, writing down station names. I also travelled to South Australia to find the place where Jack’s granddad lived, and took lots of photos so that later I could describe it.

For Dying to Tell Me, I interviewed several policemen. Two were in one-man police stations in the country, one was a homicide detective and two were police dog handlers. I got to meet several police dogs, and in the novel, King is based on the first dog I met, Ben. Again, taking lots of photos really helped me later. I also spent a lot of time walking in the bush and imagining where my story was taking place.

Other things I have done for research include having a horse riding lesson, watching chickens run up and down the yard, visiting the Australian Ballet School, watching a lot of ballet on the internet, and climbing Mount Samaria in Northern Victoria.

People often ask me where I get my characters from, and sometimes they are based on people I meet – but only little bits of them. I usually create the basis of a character from what is going to happen in my story – what kind of person would do this, who would live here, who would want that in their lives? Then I make them up like a collage. A bit of this one’s temper, a little of that one’s funny jokes, a smidgin of someone’s talent with drawing and painting.

Often with a novel it’s like weaving a tapestry. So many little bits to thread in and out, including the research. Then at the end you stand back and hope nobody sees all the little joins and knots!

About the Author

Sherryl Clark’s latest novel is Dying to Tell Me, a spooky mystery for 10-14 year olds.

She loves to read crime and mystery fiction and wishes there was more written for children. She also likes writing historical fiction and was one of the first Our Australian Girl writers with the Rose stories.

Her favourite books when she was young were the Narnia series, but when she was (a lot) older, she fell in love with Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. She also likes scary picture books, like The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman.

Find out more about Sherryl's books at her website:

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Sherryl. An interesting insight into this aspect of the creative process.

    I like what you say about a book being like a tapestry - that part of the craft is to hide the knots and joins so that the reader sees only the finished work.