In the final stages of editing her new book Gulliver’s Wife, Lauren Chater talks to Cornerstone about the importance of research in storytelling.
“I would say research is at least 50% if not 80% of the actual work,” she says, “I like to read as much as I can before I start writing. Then, even after I’ve done that first draft, I’ll go back and hone down what I need to know more specifically. Research is a constant. I’m always keeping my eye out for the important facts that will help shape the story.”
Lauren describes Gulliver’s Wifeas realist fiction, in that while the story is fictitious, the world it is based in is very real. Based on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the story is told from the perspective of Gulliver’s wife Mary, who has her own story as a midwife in 17thcentury London.
This requires research. A lot of research.
“So Gulliver comes back and nobody knows whether he is raving mad or whether he’s actually been with the ‘little people.’ Mary is a pragmatist, she’s also a midwife, she has medical training, so she doesn’t believe that he’s actually seen these little people. It’s all based in the real world. It took a lot of research. A lot of research on 17th century London and a lot on midwifery history,” Lauren explains.
Delving deep into research doesn’t just help the writer with world building, it also helps them develop and understand their characters. To build Mary’s character Lauren interviewed academics and PhD students doing their doctoral thesis on 17thcentury midwifery. Lauren uses this information to describe Mary’s activities as a midwife as well as the medical world at the time.
For Lauren, research is more than reading, it’s immersion. In the place, people and culture, which, as Lauren says, “You just can’t do from Australia.”
“It’s definitely important for me to be able to travel to the places. The idea of the place you have in your head, isn’t really what it’s like when you get there. You also uncover a lot of interesting folklore and local stories and since I’m writing historical fiction, that is always an important part of my work.”
Lauren is no stranger to pounding the pavement to ground herself in a setting. She wrote 25,000 words of historical vignettes about a man who lived near the Sydney Harbour Bridge for HSC Extension Two English.
“I did a lot of travelling around Sydney, and going to the Harbour Bridge and walking across it and doing that sort of thing to inspire me. I remember getting a really good mark for it because I loved it, I loved writing, I loved the process of doing it.”
Lauren’s research for her books has taken her all over Europe. For Gulliver’s Wife, it took her to a local history library and archives called Tower Hamlet in South East London where she was able to pour through 17thcentury letters and diaries, local research studies and books about the area.
“I’ve been to London twice, to actually walk around the areas where the book is set to ground myself in the place,” she says, “Tower Hamlet was amazing. They had all the maps from 1600s onwards, when people started making maps of that area. Just seeing the little map, there were all these other little stairs there that I hadn’t known about and just seeing the maze of streets. They all have these names like frying pan stairs and milk alley and pudding lane because they were all named after the trades that went on there.”
While Lauren revels in the surprising details intensive research can unearth, she warns against placing facts in the story just for the sake of it.
“I edit out anything that’s just scaffolding, like a historical fact that doesn’t actually need to be there but you can tell in a more interesting way.”
About Lauren Chater
Lauren Chater is a Sydney based author of The Lace Weaver which was published by Simon & Schuster in April 2018 and her non-fiction book Well Read Cookies in October 2018. She is currently completing her second novel, Gulliver’s Wife and researching her third, The Winter Dress.