My life doesn’t often have a theme. But one does seem to have been emerging over the last few days.
It started with the annual, bank holiday, medieval-style charcoal burn that my other half and I get involved with at the Forest of Dean Heritage Centre and it continued this evening when we drove up to the Hay Festival after work to see a panel discussion about the TV series Shetland, based on the Ann Cleeves novels.
Forty eight hours non-stop vigilance over a smoking, earthed-up stack of wood getting tired, smelly and dirty vs an hour listening to TV folk talk about their work on a well-lit, well-mic’d stage. Not a lot of comparison there on the face of it.
But here’s where the theme comes in. Both were about getting your research right.
I got involved with charcoal burning when I was writing a psychological crime novel set during the Black Death. For some reason, my main protagonist was a charcoal burner (don’t ask my why, he just was) and I wanted to get the details right. I’d read all the available literature on pre-Industrial Revolution methods of charcoal production but I wanted to find out what it actually looked, smelled and sounded like.
Fortunately for me, there are a few people in the UK who get their kicks keeping ancient crafts alive so we tootled off to see some of them in the Forest of Dean. We were living in Kent at the time so it was a weekend’s worth of research time but we thought one weekend would cover it. I’d back some hapless charcoal-burner against a tree, quiz him til I’d got what I needed, watch the thing lit, observe smoke emerging, Bob’s your father’s brother and off we go back to Kent.
But no. We were fascinated. We were included. We stayed. We’ve gone back every year – sometimes twice a year – since. Now we live here and we’re the ones doing the including.
And so to Shetland. Ann Cleeves was joined onstage at Hay by the executive producer and script executive who’d worked on the recent 6-part series, as well as Alison O’Donnell who plays Tosh.
Anybody who watched that series will have been very struck by the way it handled the storyline around Tosh’s rape. It was viscerally well-done and generated an enormous positive response from viewers. Unsurprisingly, the way it had been handled turned out to be the result of very thorough research. In the words of executive producer, Elaine Collins, the team hadn’t wanted to have the rape taking place and Tosh ‘getting over it a few scenes later’ as tends to happen in TV drama. The profound and lasting effect on Tosh that Alison O’Donnell portrayed rang true because the whole team had done their research. They’d put the hours and days in, they’d bothered to get it right, and if showed.
Obviously, given the current state of sexual politics in this country, with trolling of feminists, casual sexism and continuing gender inequality, the rape storyline was extremely important and I’m not going to compare the kind of research I did with that. But I do think that, in any fiction, when we’re trying to show our audience what something outside their experience is really like, we owe it to them to do as much as we can to get it right.
But we don’t all have to take up a new hobby because of it.