Monday 20 February 2012

Planning and researching your novel, with Gillian Cross

Because we love our fellow Slushpilers so very much, today we bring you Gillian Cross, and her top five tips for planning and research. Gillian Cross has written over 40 books for children (yes, you read that right!) and has won a couple of prizes along the way, including the Carnegie Medal, the Whitbread Award and the Smarties Prize. She influenced a generation of school kids by making them even more terrified of their headmasters than normal with The Demon Headmaster series, and then terrified them all over again with urban thrillers including Tightrope. Her most recent novel is Where I Belong.

1. Discover your own way of planning - and how much you need to do in advance - and don't be intimidated by what other writers tell you. I know lots of fantastic planning tools, ranging from drawing a map of where the story happens to working out the whole plot backwards, on little white file cards. They're awesome to think about, but they've never worked for me. I always have to do my planning after I've written the first draft and the sooner I accept that the better I get on. It's always a struggle though, because planning seems easier than actually writing.

2. The key thing is to get the stuff down. Once you've got it, you can revise it, cut it, expand it or alter it out of all recognition.

But you must have something solid to work with. And that doesn't come from the same part of the brain as planning and editing.

3. Remember that people are one of the best research resources, so don't be shy of asking. I'm always embarrassed to ask people for information, but when I manage to pluck up courage I've hardly ever been rejected. Most people are very generous with their time and love being a source of useful information. It's important to work out what you really need to know though, because no one else can guess that. And the difficulty is, of course, that you don't always know what you want to know, until it turns up, because the things that are most helpful are often small, inconsequential details.

This ENORMOUS PILE of books formed just part of Gillian's research for Where I Belong.

4. Don't let research become an end in itself if you want to finish the book. In my experience, the more you learn about something the more fascinating it becomes. Research can go on for ever and sometimes there's a danger of forgetting how little your readers will actually understand unless you do lots of explaining. (Don't!) I once wrote a book about two boys who restore a 1930s motorbike and the story got lost in the details of sandblasting cylinders etc.

5. Don't panic about remembering everything you've found out.

If you try and hold it all in your head, you won't be able to concentrate properly on the story. A moment will come when you need to put the research on one side and write.

You can always check the details later. And a story isn't a research paper. Anything you write will be fine as long as you can get away with it. And that has more to do with storytelling than with correctness.

Slushpile note: If you found that helpful (or even just enjoyable!), check out Linda Newbery's Research and Planning blog here.


  1. Thanks for blogging with us Gillian! And thanks for the great advice - the line about not worrying about holding it all in your head rings very true.

  2. Great blog post Gillian. I love doing the reesearch but as you point out there is a fine art to knowing when to stop research and start writing. It can too easily become an avoidance tactic. Like you I can;t use the planning tools. I have an idea where my story is going but am never sure how it will get there.

  3. Great blog post, Gillian! And I echo everything Ness has said above!

  4. Some truly great advice. Thank you so much!

  5. Hi Gillian! Thank you for putting research in perspective! I'm all for expanding factual knowledge about all things for the health of my soul and humanity but for a story, it's great to have a measure of creative licence to bend things to one's story - so long as it's grounded in something solid! But hey - reach for the stars and the moon! take care

  6. Now that really is useful, especially point 4, in my case! Thank you :)

  7. I love this bit - Anything you write will be fine as long as you can get away with it.
    Thanks for that.

  8. Bother - you've all said what I wanted to say - so I'll settle for plain old 'thanks'.

  9. Great advice, Gillian. 'Story is not a research paper' - absolutely but it beats cleaning as a displacement activity.

  10. I'm with Maureen - the line 'anything you write will be fine as long as you can get away with it' is priceless. And so true... Great post.

  11. Thanks Gillian this makes so much sense, and was a bit of a Ah-ha moment for me. Writing the first draft before doing research as how do you know what you need to know, until you need to know it? And you need a first draft for that!


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