Saturday, 9 March 2013

Research

I work closely with someone who has a very deep insight into research practices. Her knowledge has helped many writers ensure that they make the very best efforts to get their facts right. My readers know that my novels have been set in varying parts of the UK from Cornwall to the Hebrides. I try to ensure that I am geared up to the backgrounds of those varying locations. As a consequence I tend to store away in my head odd bits of interesting information.
 
I was surprised, therefore, when I heard someone mention in a group conversation that the languages of the Celts are all the same, from Brittany to the Shetland Islands. I didn’t want to contradict him in public (a) because I didn’t want to embarrass him and (b) because I didn’t want to look like a know-it-all.

But I'll tell you.
 
First of all, the Shetlanders are of Danish descent and their language has Norse origins. Secondly, within these islands we have two Celtic language divisions: Brythoic which comes from old British and includes Welsh, Cornish and Breton. And then there is the Goidelic Celtic language which includes Irish and Scottish Gaelic as well as Manx. The languages can be very similar, but only within their groups. My wife is Irish and tells of her first days on a Hebridean island when she overheard two local women in a shop discussing her in Scottish Gaelic. She said nothing, knowing they thought she was English, until she was about to leave the shop. Then she smiled and greeted them in her Irish Gaelic, which they fully understood. Red faces followed her exit.
 
It isn’t just a matter of research, of course. Research is essential but it’s not the whole story. I like to write about places I have known, places where I have lived. I try to describe them as I saw them and experienced them. That is not always the way other people saw those places. I believe that a writer should be true to his own judgements. A scene painted in words that come from the writer’s heart is always going to be more vivid than a generalised description pulled down from the internet. I am in contact with someone who wrote a book about Finland, including descriptions that provoked a national debate. But the book turned into an international best seller. I suggest its success is largely due to the personal honesty of the writing.

So, the message is: do your research, but be true to yourself.

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