Research, One Couch at a Time

After several years of research, writing and rewriting, my second novel, The Descent of the Lyre, is now finally published by Roman Books (in the UK at least—if you are in the USA, you will have to wait until December 11th), and it’s good to see that the novel seems to be already getting a few nice reviews here and there. But I thought I’d say a little bit here about the research that led to the book. I’ve written already about research and fiction here on The Myriad Things, and also written some research notes over on Necessary Fiction; but here I want to say more about the research trip that I made back in 2007.

Most of The Descent of the Lyre is set in the Rodopi mountains of Bulgaria and nineteenth century Paris. Early on in the writing of the book, it occurred to me that writing about elsewhere is a perilous process. There are so many ways of getting it wrong, after all. And so as I wrote the book, I did my best to grapple with history, with the Bulgarian language (what progress I made there has, alas, now been almost entirely lost), with Bulgarian history and so forth. But I was also lucky enough to be given a small grant by Arts Council England to travel to Bulgaria overland, for the purposes of research, and so I invested in a pair of sturdy boots (I still have my Arts Council Boots—they’ve held up well), planned my route, and before too long was heading South by train through Paris, Vienna and Bucharest to Sofia and beyond.

I spent eight weeks in all on that research trip, travelling from town to town and village to village, chasing down stories. When it comes to fiction, as I have probably said before, research is, in part, a haphazard process: it involves remaining open to whatever kinds of stories you happen to stumble across, keeping your ears pricked, following your nose. Researching fiction pulls in two directions: on the one hand there is the proliferation of tales and stories, and on the other hand there is the effort to sort out these threads, to disentangle them sufficiently to be able to knit together something of a story of your own.

My budget was small, and eight weeks is a long time to travel, but fortunately I had, the year before, signed up with, which is—for those who haven’t heard of it—a global hospitality network. It is a strange and wonderful thing: a network of people who are willing to open their homes to strangers for free, a community based on the principles of hospitality; and having hosted a number of people back in the UK and found the experience fascinating and enriching, I set out on my researches for my novel, heading across Europe on a shoestring, one couch at a time.

This was not, however, simply a matter of economics—although I could not have afforded to stretch the research out to two months without CouchSurfing. It was also about friendship—I am still in touch with many of the friends I made on that trip, people who I ate and drank with, who I shared journeys with, who I talked with far into the night—and it was about gaining the kind of understanding of place that you simply cannot have if you flit from one hotel to another. I remember one night in particular, at the end of my stay in Bulgaria, when I was taken out by friends to a bar, and where over more beers and mastikas than I can recall, some of my Bulgarian friends and former CouchSurfing hosts interrogated me in forensic detail about the story, checking it point by point, until they were happy that I was going home with something more or less watertight. I am hugely grateful to them for the pains they took.

To the extent that The Descent of the Lyre has successfully managed to speak about the elsewhere that is Bulgaria and that is, to those who live there, home, I owe this to the friends that I made along the way (to the extent that it has been unsuccessful—and I have a few Bulgarian friends reading the finished novel at the moment, so I’m waiting anxiously for their verdicts—I am responsible, of course, for any shortcomings). For eight weeks, I discussed the story endlessly with my various CouchSurfing hosts, putting twists on it here and there, scrubbing out plot-lines because they didn’t work, fashioning and refashioning the tale; and by the time I caught the train home, through Budapest, Vienna and Paris, I had the skeleton of a story, a story that would still take several more years to hone into a novel, but one in which I could be relatively confident.

My instincts as a storyteller are always towards the fable, the ‘told tale’ that is shared around a table, the stories that are passed from mouth to mouth; and so perhaps it was fitting that it was as a guest in many houses that this novel took shape. I am certain that, without CouchSurfing, it would have turned out to be a different—and, perhaps, a less rich—book; and whilst I do not have any immediate plans for further extended research trips, when I do get round to the next big researched novel, I’ll be putting on my Arts Council Boots again, shunning expensive hotels, and knocking once more on the doors of complete strangers…


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