How to research a book during a pandemic
I came up with the idea for my book, Mystery in the Palace of Westminster, in early 2020. By March, I was ready to research the setting for my story and I set off on a trip into Westminster.
Thinking it was a preliminary visit, I made note of only a few details, mostly things that I wanted to come back to look into more. But just a few weeks later, the UK went into lockdown and all my plans were scuppered. Suddenly I had to research my book solely from my desk. This is how I did it.
A closed book
For me, reading around my subject is always my first step when I’m researching a new story idea. I want to understand the setting and, in the case of this book, I also wanted some more in-depth understanding of the types of characters who go into politics than can usually be gleaned from news coverage.
I would usually do a lot of that reading either in the library (I used to have a pass to access the Reading Rooms at the British Library) or by digging out gems in charity book shops. Otherwise researching a book can be an expensive business. But none of those avenues were open to me this time.
When everything closed during the first lockdown, I had to get creative. Thankfully, the library app, Libby, saved me. The library itself was closed, but I could take out eBooks on the app.
I also found a few second-hand books online, the best of which was a coffee-table book on the Houses of Parliament. It had what I desperately wanted in the absence of visits to Westminster: a map of the palace.
A picture isn’t worth a thousand words
The few notes I had made during my first trip to the palace didn’t have nearly enough detail about the interior. The opening of my book begins with the theft of the parliamentary mace from inside the palace and I wanted to be able to describe it well enough for readers who didn’t know it at all.
I relied heavily on the virtual tour feature on the Parliament website. I kept it open while I wrote and spent hours clicking forwards and back, trying to get a look at the mosaics on the walls, the tiles underfoot.
But there's something about the feeling of a place that can’t be seen in photos online. Does it feel warm? Is it quiet? What does it smell like? For those details I had to return to my few precious memories of the palace.
Memories and imagination
I grew up in London and went to school in Westminster – just round the corner from the Houses of Parliament. Which is lucky for me because I don’t live in London any more and during lockdown, non-essential travel was forbidden.
While many people were brushing up their baking skills or just trying to get through another day of home schooling, I was deep in memories of my own school days. Of lunches spent in a market opposite the school. Of the 300-year-old school building, which Theo’s school is based on.
Ultimately though, the resource I relied on most of all was my own imagination. The book isn’t a historical account or a piece of political commentary. It’s a story.
The characters are my own and to a certain extent, so are the settings. It doesn’t have to be a faithful recreation of the real places in the novel, but it does have to feel alive for the reader. And sometimes that has nothing to do with research.