by Claire Mackintosh
It’s easy to get lost in research. It’s easy to convince yourself that the hour you spent looking at houses on Rightmove was productive, and that trawling parenting sites searching for the perfect name for one of your characters is a completely justifiable way to spend an afternoon. Sometimes research is just another name for procrastination…
Of course research can be essential, and unless you write entirely from your own experience you would find it hard to complete a novel without at least some element of fact-finding. When I wrote I Let You Go, I planned out the story in advance, and identified the areas I would need to research.
After spending 12 years as a police officer I didn’t need to spend a huge amount of time researching procedure, but I did still have to brush up on my investigation skills! I asked a former colleague who had been on Roads Policing to take me through the step she would expect to see following a fatal traffic collision, and although I tweaked them a little to suit my purposes, I kept as closely as I could to her advice.
My biggest area of research was location. I had a really specific idea about the ‘feel’ of the place I wanted Jenna to move to after the accident. It had to be rural and isolated, definitely by the sea, and close enough to Bristol – her home town – to drive there and back in less than a day. Wales was an easy choice, and as it’s a part of the world I love, it was nice to set those parts of the book there. I used Google Earth to find the beach that most closely matched the one in my head, and found Three Cliffs Bay; a beautiful beach surrounded on three sides by tall cliffs. I had found Jenna’s new home.
That sort of research – checking procedure, or finding locations – is fairly straight-forward. It’s what I consider fact-checking, and can often be done on the internet, or on the phone. Sometimes, though, you need to immerse yourself in a situation. Perhaps it’s not so much specific pieces of information you need, as to simply ‘absorb’ the atmosphere of a place, or the way it might feel to be in that particular profession. During the editing stages of I Let You Go I was building on the way Jenna becomes increasingly vulnerable and disturbed throughout the story. I saw her returning home late at night, and going down to the beach to clear her head. Then I saw her walking into the sea – and not stopping.
I could have written it then and there, but we happened to be on holiday in Devon at the time. ‘Can we go to the beach?’ I asked my husband suddenly. We trooped down to the coast, wrapped up in coats and scarves – it was bitterly cold – and I wandered by the edge of the sea. I thought of Jenna, and what she’d been through, and I imagined how frightened she was, how devastated.
‘I’m going to have to go in,’ I said, both exhilarated and terrified by the idea. The sea was grey and unwelcoming, and the air decidedly nippy. Fortunately my husband is used to my eccentricities, and he stood patiently while I took off as many outer layers as I dared. In my bare feet, trousers and t-shirt I started walking into the sea. The water was so cold it took my breath away, but I forced myself to keep going, and as the waves lapped at my waist I felt a clutch of fear in my stomach at the thought of Jenna being driven to such desperate measures.
At chest-height I turned and swam back, almost hysterical with adrenalin, and numb with cold. ‘Nice swim?’ my husband asked, wrapping me in my coat. ‘Bracing,’ I said.
I’m not sure this type of ‘method-writing’ is for everyone, but on this occasion it worked for me!
When I wake, for a second I’m not sure what this feeling is. Everything is the same, and yet everything has changed. Then, before I have even opened my eyes, there is a rush of noise in my head, like an underground train. And there it is: playing out in Technicolor scenes I can’t pause or mute. I press the heels of my palms into my temples as though I can make the images subside through brute force alone, but still they come, thick and fast, as if without them I might forget.
On my bedside cabinet is the brass alarm clock Eve gave me when I went to university – ‘Because you’ll never get to lectures, otherwise’ – and I’m shocked to see it’s ten-thirty already. The pain in my hand has been overshadowed by a headache that blinds me if I move my head too fast, and as I peel myself from the bed every muscle aches.
I pull on yesterday’s clothes and go into the garden without stopping to make a coffee, even though my mouth is so dry it’s an effort to swallow. I can’t find my shoes, and the frost stings my feet as I make my way across the grass. The garden isn’t large, but winter is on its way, and by the time I reach the other side I can’t feel my toes.
The garden studio has been my sanctuary for the last five years. Little more than a shed to the casual observer, it is where I come to think, to work, and to escape. The wooden floor is stained from the lumps of clay that drop from my wheel, firmly placed in the centre of the room, where I can move around it and stand back to view my work with a critical eye. Three sides of the shed are lined with shelves on which I place my sculptures, in an ordered chaos only I could understand. Works in progress, here; fired but not painted, here; waiting to go to customers, here. Hundreds of separate pieces, yet if I shut my eyes, I can still feel the shape of each one beneath my fingers, the wetness of the clay on my palms.
I take the key from its hiding place under the window ledge and open the door. It’s worse than I thought. The floor lies unseen beneath a carpet of broken clay; rounded halves of pots ending abruptly in angry jagged peaks. The wooden shelves are all empty, my desk swept clear of work, and the tiny figurines on the window ledge are unrecognisable, crushed into shards that glisten in the sunlight.
By the door lies a small statuette of a woman. I made her last year, as part of a series of figures I produced for a shop in Clifton. I had wanted to produce something real, something as far from perfection as it was possible to get, and yet for it still to be beautiful. I made ten women, each with their own distinctive curves, their own bumps and scars and imperfections. I based them on my mother; my sister; girls I taught at pottery class; women I saw walking in the park. This one is me. Loosely, and not so anyone would recognise, but nevertheless me. Chest a little too flat; hips a little too narrow; feet a little too big. A tangle of hair twisted into a knot at the base of the neck. I bend down and pick her up. I had thought her intact, but as I touch her the clay moves beneath my hands, and I’m left with two broken pieces. I look at them, then I hurl them with all my strength towards the wall, where they shatter into tiny pieces that shower down on to my desk.
I take a deep breath and let it slowly out.
Clare Mackintosh is an author, feature writer and columnist. She has written for The Guardian, Sainsbury’s Magazine, The Green Parent, and many other national publications, and is a columnist for Cotswold Life and Writing Magazine.
Clare spent twelve years in the police force, working on CID, in custody and as a public order commander, and has drawn on her experiences for her début psychological thriller I Let You Go. She is currently writing her second novel, out next year.