Friday, 3 October 2014

Writing Tips from the Edge—Dave Cousins' 8 Rules of Research.

Yesterday evening I sent off the final files for my new Charlie Merrick book; on Monday, I start work on the second draft of my next teen novel. The story and characters have been buzzing around in my head while I finished the illustrations for Charlie, so I'm really excited at the prospect of spending more time with them. There is however a slight caveat—now I know the skeleton of the story, this draft will need some research. For me, research sometimes feels like ‘homework’, and it’s frustrating when a ‘fact’ gets in the way of a good story! At the same time, inaccuracies and inconsistency can push the reader out of a story, so it's important we spend the time to get it right. 
     Therefore, as a reminder to myself as much as anything, I decided to put together a few thoughts about research. 'Rules' might be pushing it a bit, but I couldn't resist the chance for some alliteration in the title!

The spark for my second novel, Waiting forGonzo, was to explore the impact of a teenage pregnancy from the point of view of the girl’s younger brother. The story takes place over nine months and is loosely structured around the pregnancy, which meant I had to keep a close eye on key moments on that timeline—hospital scan dates; changing symptoms; at what point the ‘bump’ starts to show, and so on. All this information was readily available online.
     Something to bear in mind when doing internet research—if you are writing a book based in the UK, make sure the information is from a UK website, as treatment methods and procedure can vary in different countries. For UK medical matters, the NHS website ( is a good place to start, offering a huge database of symptoms, treatments and a Health Encyclopaedia.
     There is probably some time-honoured rule stating that the best research comes from first hand experience, and I wouldn’t argue with that. But sometimes, it’s simply not possible. For example, finding out what it actually feels like during the different stages of pregnancy was going to be tricky for me! Instead, I talked to my wife and other female friends; I read pregnancy magazines and borrowed a stack of books from the library.
     When faced with a mouth-watering pile of research material, it’s tempting to spend weeks scouring every page of every book to ensure you don’t miss a single shiny nugget of information. STOP! You have a story to write. Having fallen into this trap myself many times, I now use the following strategy:

1. Start with a quick scan through all your materials—use Post-it notes to flag any pages that look useful, but resist the temptation to start reading and taking notes. 
2. From this initial overview, select just two or three core volumes on which to base your research. Read these in depth and make notes.
3. It’s likely you’ll still have gaps, but now, you can search your remaining resources for the specific pieces of information you are missing and ignore areas you have already covered in you core research.

I find that this technique saves time, and stops me covering the same ground with multiple sources.
     My pregnancy research quickly established that people’s experiences vary dramatically. I collected many fascinating, and often very funny, accounts of what it’s like to be pregnant. Unfortunately, most of these never made it into the book. It’s always hard to leave out gems you’ve uncovered, but you have to be ruthless—if it doesn’t help the story, it shouldn’t go in. You can always include these extras in a blog post, or in a DVD style bonus features section at the end of the book, or on your website.

A number of characters in Waiting for Gonzo have accidents. Again the NHS website was a good place to check symptoms and treatment. However, you can lose a lot of time searching the web. A good tip is to set a timer, so you don’t spend hours chasing a link.
     I was lucky enough to find a friendly doctor via Twitter who has been kind enough to check my stories for medical accuracy. This is invaluable when it comes to details and specific questions you’ll struggle to answer online. For example, knowing the questions an A&E doctor would ask; who else would be present at a consultation, and so on.
     Watching realistic hospital dramas in films and TV can be useful in this regard too. It also means you can watch TV and honestly claim to be working! For example, a number of scenes in Waiting for Gonzo take place in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Due to the nature of the work they do, I was unable to visit one, but I did find a documentary series about a baby care unit on BBC iPlayer. The programmes revealed huge amounts of information about what goes on, who is likely to be around, what staff wear and how they talk. I was also able to hear what the location sounded like too, something I wouldn’t have got from photos alone. It was the next best thing to actually being there and gave a real feel for the location which helped immensely when it came to writing the scenes. I then sent the pages to a friend who works in a NICU to make sure I hadn’t made any errors.

For me, stories always start with a spark for a character or situation. Usually I get a burst of ideas about where the story could go, but if I don’t know enough about the subject, I’ll do some research as the results will inform what can happen. As soon as I feel I know enough (not everything, just enough), I do a first draft—writing what works for the story and not being afraid to add details that may be inaccurate. This draft will usually reveal further gaps in my knowledge, so I’ll do more research to fill these, and also check any stuff I made up. This process repeats over numerous drafts until the story is close to completion, at which point I recheck my facts and if possible get an expert to read what I have written to make sure the story rings true.

While working on a book, I cover the walls above my desk with information I collect—location photos; character castings; words and phrases that capture the mood or key ideas of the story; reminder notes and, with Waiting for Gonzo, the timeline with all the relevant dates and plot points.
     I also gather the research photos for my current project into a screen saver folder on my computer. This means that when I’m not actually typing, the machine starts displaying reminders of my locations, characters etc. It’s a great way to stay immersed in the story world, and because the slideshow chooses images at random, it sometimes throws up an aspect I’d forgotten about, which in the past has triggered a helpful idea.

The man in the milk bottle mask!
The most unusual piece of research I’ve ever undertaken was for the Nyctal masks worn by Oz and Ryan at Fight Camp in Waiting for Gonzo. I researched mask making on the internet, and then adapted one for the creature I had invented for the story. But I had to check it would work, so found myself actually making a mask from a plastic milk bottle. Then I wore it round the house for an hour—just to see how it felt. Did it smell? Get sweaty quickly? What could I see and hear while I was wearing it? Information that really helped when writing the scene.

I like to invent place names for my stories, but my imaginary locations are usually based on somewhere real. Crawdale in Waiting for Gonzo is a mixture of North Yorkshire and Mid West Wales. I treat this research like scouting for film locations, and take lots of photos and video—walking Oz’s route home from school for example.

Researching Oz's walk home in Wales.

     Video is useful because you capture sounds too — birds, traffic, a nearby stream, the crunch of feet on gravel. I try to look around and focus in on things I might want to include later. I’ll often dictate notes out loud as I’m recording, which draws funny looks from people, but is useful for capturing details that won’t be on the film—the fact my knees ached from the steepness of the hill; the way the wind felt like it was trying to tear my clothes! Months later I can watch these location videos before writing a scene, and it takes me right back there.
     Google Maps Street View is great for checking routes and what places look like without actually visiting! The 360° feature means you can literally look around and take screenshots—almost as good as being there with a camera in your hand. Of course you don’t get the full sense of a location, but it’s a superb way to visit places quickly and cheaply!

Stories often take place in a non-specified time of year, but make sure you don’t forget crucial calendar events that would register in your character’s lives. For example, Waiting for Gonzo took place over 40 weeks, which meant I had to acknowledge Halloween and Christmas. I find that these events often provide a setting for a scene, or even a useful plot-point. Anchoring your story to real calendar events can give it a strong sense of reality.
     I also find it useful to keep in mind what time of year my story is taking place. Knowing whether an evening scene happens on a dark winter’s night, or a balmy summer’s evening will affect the mood and how the events unfold. For example, a car’s headlights dazzle your heroine and cause her to crash her bike. But it’s a summer evening and still light—you’ll need to rethink the cause of the accident. is useful for finding out what time it gets dark at a particular time of year. (Click on the Sun&Moon tab and enter the month, year and location.) It’s a detail, but getting it wrong can pull the reader out of the world you have created. Plus, taking a moment to consider these things before starting a scene can really draw you into the moment and inject greater depth into your writing.
     A few years ago I started keeping a weather diary—daily notes on what the light was like; how the trees looked; how cold it was and what people were wearing. Now, I’m not suggesting you should include ‘weather reports’ in every scene—unless it is crucial to your story, of course—but deciding what conditions are like will inform how your characters feel and what could happen to them.


Research can be great fun, it can bring our characters to life and inform what happens in our stories, it can provide us with settings so real, our readers will be able to smell the air as they turn the page. But don’t get lost in its maze of magical mysteries—research is there to support our stories, not the other way around.

I hope some of the above will be of interest. I'd be interested to hear other people's thoughts on research. Why not leave a comment below with your top research tip.

Dave Cousins is the author of a number of award-winning books for teenagers and children. For a more information, sounds and videos, visit


  1. Fantastic. I could do an equivalent post about researching a historical novel but I think I should wait until I've finished the book! Thanks!

    1. Thanks Candy. I've always steered away from writing anything historical because of the amount of research involved. I'd be very interested to hear how you get on!

  2. What a great post. I particularly love the screen saver idea. Wonderful!

    1. Thanks Sue. I really enjoyed your research article in Words & Pictures ( Can't wait to read the story that comes out of it!

  3. Fab and really interesting post, Dave. I admire your dedication in making and wearing that milk -carton mask. It must have been pretty smelly and uncomfortable in there! You're the Brando of the literary world with your 'Method Writing' .Paula

    1. Ha! Thanks Paula, I can live with the Brando tag! I certainly suffered for my art — it was fairly pungent inside that mask, especially after wearing it for a while!

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.