Researching The River Singers
Published on: 30 Medi 2013 Author: Tom Moorhouse
Writer and ecologist Tom Moorhouse on how he approached researching his debut children's book.
The River Singers was the product of eight years' research. I'd love to be able to say this, and sound all impressive and everything, but unfortunately it isn't entirely true. Oh, it's true that I spent eight years camping, getting wet and trailing around marshes and rivers to identify, weigh and measure generations of water voles.
I handled literally thousands of them and got very fit - as well as cut, bitten, stung and, occasionally, urinated on. (Ecologists do it for the glamour.) But at no point did I think that I might one day write a novel about water voles. It never crossed my mind. In fact, I quite often spent all day in the field, got home, pulled out the laptop and sat down thinking 'I wonder what I'll write about today?' Which just goes to show that my brain doesn't always work very well.
When I finally did get around to writing an animal adventure story - after having been set the challenge by a lovely and very wise publishing-type person - the obvious choice of characters were water voles. But by this time I was no longer working on them. Instead I was researching the much less cuddly American signal crayfish. (I say less cuddly because while crayfish are more likely to try to hug you than water voles, you're much less likely to enjoy it. Trust me on this.) And so there was never any point at which I was writing a story about water voles and going out deliberately to find information to help the process.
In this sense, then, I didn't research The River Singers at all. Rather I relied on eight years of accumulated vole facts*, and on my long, and often muddy, experience of the places in which they live. I spent many summers down there amongst the tall plants, listening to the rain by the water, or to the hum of (attacking) insects, or feeling the hot humidity when it's sunny, which contrasts with the strange, cool darkness near the soil. These things form the world of The River Singers, a place which is beautiful and dangerous, familiar and quite alien. And it was vital that I described it accurately because the whole book hinges on how the River Singers – the water voles in my story - relate to their world, both physically and emotionally. I also spent a lot of time making sure that the River Singers behave like real water voles and that nothing happened to them that couldn't happen in real life. With just a hint of necessary poetic licence (e.g. I've never heard a water vole speak), my aim was to write an animal adventure book in which the ecology was essentially correct. It's a fine balance: too much detailed description would be massively boring, but if I had taken too many liberties something important might have been lost. And I'd probably get irate emails from my colleagues.
Anyway, all of this was an attempt to get to grips with what research for writing actually entails, and how it differs from the research I conducted as an ecologist. I'm beginning to suspect that, actually, they're not very different. When authors 'do research' they are trying to learn about and picture their characters' worlds so intimately that when they sit down to write the details sift naturally into the story. So perhaps it's not the process of the research that is important, but the resulting immersion in the subject. And if that's true then everything I learned while doing research on water voles counts as research, even if I didn't really put much extra effort in. Which, excitingly, means that I do get to sound all smug, after all.
The River Singers was the product of eight years' research. (Kind of.) So there.
*Fun vole fact: did you know that water voles have flank glands? They leave scent at territorial markers - called "latrines" - by scraping these glands with their hind legs and then drumming their feet down onto flattened piles of their own droppings. This is just one of the reasons that there will never be a superhero called 'Vole Man'.