I’m delighted to welcome David J O’Brien on my blog again. His wonderful new novel, Five Days On Ballyboy Beach, is just out and already receiving glowing reviews. I’ll pass over to David who is here to discuss the role of research in the process of writing. Please click on the cover or links below to purchase this or his previous and highly recommended novel, Leaving the Pack.
Thanks for hosting me today Jeff.
I had thought about one of the questions you asked me when hosting me on your blog after the release of Leaving the Pack – whether my novels required a lot of research. Well, Five Days on Ballyboy Beach required a bit. The characters go snorkeling, canoeing and surfing, which are hobbies that I have very little experience of.
I don’t like doing a lot of research for my novels. I don’t enjoy it all that much. I think it takes up too much time from the writing. Even today with all the information we have at our fingertips, it’s hard to do quickly, and efficiently – at least for me. If I do embark on a bit of internet investigation, I usually end up with the day gone and only random facts in my head. I mostly rely on things I already know, on information I’ve already picked up as I go along through life.
When writing, though, there will always be things that the character knows that the writer doesn’t. What I tend to do in this case is leave all the stuff I don’t already know, or am not certain about, until the end of the first draft – leaving little gaps where the absolutely necessary information has to go, and fill them in as I edit and write the second draft. Of course, I always end up with extra stuff that I can’t help trying to slot in during the second draft, too.
What I tend to do more if I don’t’ know much about a subject, is ask a friend who does. Most of my mates know more than I do!
For Five Days on Ballyboy Beach, I had to ask for help with the details of wetsuits used in different activities (much of which didn’t make it to the final edit, showing that often we’re just wasting time trying to add in those authentic details!) and types of surfboards.
At the same time, there is no way that I could have written (or would have tried to write) anything about surfing had I not had a least a little idea of what it feels like to ride a wave – or attempt to anyway! I did spend a weekend trying to stand up on the west coast once, and have sat in a few canoes, and even snorkeled in the frigid waters off Ireland. On these scant experiences, I wrote the novel. However, I also asked a friend to read the surfing description – there’s an excerpt below where you can see how well it turned out – when I had finished the first draft.
Nevertheless, I didn’t reveal all of what I had written, in order to maintain the surprise when he reads the whole novel, so any errors or inauthenticities that may remain are entirely my own. At the end of the day (as the footballers say) I can shrug my shoulders and say, I didn’t know – it’s fiction!
Blurb for Five Days on Ballyboy Beach:
Excerpt from Five Days on Ballyboy Beach:
Back on the beach, the others were still ensconced in their sleeping bags. It was very quiet, so we didn’t disturb them. We got ready to get in the water instead.
We took the boards off the cars; Bill’s usual five-foot short board, and Pat’s old eight-foot long elephant gun Malibu board for me. Then we put on the wetsuits. Carrying the boards under our arms, we walked down to the water. The waves were now less the abstract entities out at sea they had been that morning and more like living beings, pouring fourth to crush the land and anything that happened to put itself in the way.
This was the reason we were here. Regardless of drinking, walking, girls, discos, canoeing, sunsets and stars, this was why we had chosen to come to this place, and everyone bar me had taken time off work; to surf. We watched the waves roll in—the bigger ones in sets of three or four, and sometimes five. The biggest of these were usually the second, and sometimes the third. These were the ones to catch. The sets appeared as anomalies on the horizon, obscure objects disturbing the straight line between the sea and sky, slowly growing darker and larger as they approached. They were about four or five feet high—just right for beginners like me—and broke in two places. A few metres out from the cliffs, where the reef pushed them up constantly, they rose steeply and broke away from the cliff. Some seventy five metres further along, where a sandbank rose, the white curtain of water fell in both directions. To our left it joined that of the reef break, and to the right it fizzled out somewhat near the rocks, at the point where the stream, as it flowed into the sea, and the rip current combined to gouge out a relatively deep channel.
We waded out into the surf near the rocks to take advantage of the rip, holding the boards above the waves as long as we could, then dropping them and jumping up to slide onto them before paddling out. Bill forced his board down and ducked under incoming waves, while I rode high over them on my much more buoyant board. I was out of breath by the time we got past the breakers, and I sat up on the board to catch it.
Bill had already recovered his breath when the next set loomed. He chose the second wave, turned his board toward land and started paddling furiously. After a few seconds he looked around to gauge its distance. The wave rolled under me, and as it reached him, raising him up, he put his hands on the board and pushed down on it, forcing it down the other side of the wave at the same time as lifting his body up enough to get his legs under him and plant his feet firmly on the waxed surface. Then he stood up on the board as it slid down the crest of the wave. He leaned to the left and brought it along the wave, away from its break-point, going up and down along it twice, before he lost his balance and fell into the water with the wave washing over him.
It took a while for the next set to appear. My heart raced as I watched it and waited. I let the first wave pass, holding on to the board as it bobbed me up and down, then turned as the second was about six feet away, slid forward a little on the board and paddled as fast as I could. I breathed hard and kept pushing as I felt the wave roll underneath me. I accelerated suddenly, and as I did, I found myself leaning forward down the wave. Grabbing the side of the board, I quickly lifted my body up off it and put my feet on the board. I tried to stand up, but the wave pushed me down its face and the white foam rained all around me as I fell forward. The board slid over my head, blocking the sunlight momentarily. Suddenly all was blue and noise.
I surfaced after a few seconds and swam after the board, holding on to it as the last wave of the set swept over me as well. When it had passed, I slid back onto the board and paddled out again, as fast as I could before another set could arrive and push me back towards the shore again.
Just as I got out to the break-point, another set approached fast. I took a few deep breaths to get my wind back while the first two went under, and started out again after the third. I felt it rise up and paddled harder, but I caught sight of the white foam bubbling on my right where the wave was breaking, and, despite trying for a few more seconds and pushing down on the board to force it over the top, it rolled onwards. I was left lying on the board, panting. I turned around and paddled back out, moving left a few metres where the wave had begun to break. The first wave had brought me along the beach a little, so when I had gone back out I had been in the wrong place.
Bill was sitting on his board, waiting for me. “You popped too late on that first one,” he told me.
“Yeah. I guessed that all right,” I replied, still out of breath.