Good Reading : November 2008
behind the book contributed some classic towie lines: ‘We’re the most efficient rescue service in the world – all you gotta do is hit something.’ Feeling more confident about my ability to ‘talk towie’ I dared a walk-in at a big Sydney yard where, once I negotiated my way through the opening hostilities, I became a (relatively) welcome regular visitor. The owner, who runs over 45 trucks, furnished me with newspaper cuttings about the alleged tow truck wars and gave me the opportunity to ride with the drivers to get the full experience. The old adage ‘write what you know’ may be sound advice but it has its limitations. To move beyond that it becomes a matter of ‘know what you write’ and this is where fiction requires the same research and interview skills of non-fiction. The research for my previous book The Olive Sisters was relatively easy. For that, I needed to gather information on Italian migration and olives, which required reading books and first-hand accounts of the experience of arriving in Australia – all available in the well-ordered world of the State Library. Researching my next book Two for the Road was, indeed, a different story. Written accounts of the tow truck world are mainly in the form of court evidence or newspaper articles with headlines such as ‘Bikie Body Dumped in Driveway’ – referring to one stand-over man’s termination package. I was attracted to this world as a backdrop to my story because, metaphorically, it related to an accident that had informed my character’s adult life but also because of the potential challenges this testosterone- fuelled industry offered my character in finding her strengths and facing down her past. To create an authentic environment that would allow the reader to step into this world, I needed to understand who these people were, what motivated them, how the tow system worked and exactly how a car was towed. Essential elements like these would add colour and texture under the intricate drawing of the characters and plot. The role of research in fiction seems to be something that is rarely discussed yet it does play a major role for many novelists. Some authors freely admit that they loathe research and deliberately create stories that don’t require any so they never need to leave the house – an approach that seemed to work quite well for Ms Rowling. But for others, who set stories in worlds they are not familiar with, it is an integral part of what they do. As background to his novel Saturday, Ian McEwan spent two years in and out of the operating theatre at The National Hospital of Neurology and Neurosurgery in London and had many conversations with neurosurgeon Neil Kitchen in order to gather enough information to build an authentic background for his fictional character Henry Perowne. Closer to home, one of our biggest selling authors Bryce Courtenay employs two research assistants, one specialising in print media, the other in web information, to help research that reveals itself as just that – research. At its best it doesn’t overshadow the plot but enhances and enriches it and contributes to the creation of fresh original characters. Meeting people completely out of your normal social sphere and hearing their stories is enriching and humbling at the same time. People think writing a book is difficult work but, frankly, being a tow truck driver is much more difficult. Making stuff up has got to be easier than cleaning stuff up. Particularly broken young bodies and crushed metal in the dead of night. It takes a certain type of person to withstand that – on top of the ‘burn your house down, kill your family’ threats apparently made by opposition towies – for years on end. I came away ‘... Johnny Cash is the music of choice, Alan Jones the font of all knowledge and the mullet haircut is ... still very much in vogue.’ him gather the enormous amount of historical material required for his fiction. For me, face-to-face research is fascinating. Also, it allows me to escape from the house but doesn’t qualify as procrastination. The experience of going out and talking to people also offers inspiration from the most unexpected quarters, perhaps a comment or character or a snippet of authentic dialogue you couldn’t dream up. Delicious details that flesh out characters, for example, getting around in the world of towies you soon learn that Johnny Cash is the music of choice, Alan Jones the font of all knowledge and the mullet haircut (long and extra-long) and bikie beards are still very much in vogue. You get to find out what makes many of these particular people tick and what motivates them. The challenge for the writer is to make sure that the research doesn’t take over the story because it’s not what the story is about. The research needs to be stitched into the story invisibly and casually, as if being delivered from the character’s own experience. Sometimes it’s necessary to read an entire book to write one informed paragraph and limiting yourself to that informed paragraph – as opposed to showing off how much you do actually know on the topic – requires discipline and restraint. Narrative can be railroaded by the NOVEMBER 2008 i goodreading 27 from this experience with a healthy respect for these tough people who clean up our tragedies, deal with it and do it all again the next day. So much so that I named a fictional street after one of them. It was the least I could do. Although, I think they appreciated the free beer at the launch even more. Two for the Road by Amanda Hampson is published by Viking, rrp $32.95.
December January 2009