It’s a funny thing about novel research. Sometimes we novelists don’t use it the way we think we would. This is especially the case for me because I tend to do my research after I’ve completed a first draft.
Seems nuts, right? But there’s a perverse logic to my process, really there is. My novels take place in Ireland, so I’d prefer to arrive with specific research questions rather than guesstimating what I’ll need.
When I wrote the first draft of Kilmoon, A County Clare Mystery, I created a matchmaking festival, and I created a matchmaker. I couldn’t be bothered to check out the actual matchmaking festival that had inspired my story until after the third draft. The festival occurs in Lisdoonvarna, County Clare, each September, and eventually even I couldn’t ignore the call to check it out.
Reality ended up being both more and less than I’d imagined for Kilmoon.
On the “more” side, I was amazed by the number of singles who descended on Lisdoonvarna from all over Ireland. It was a gigantic, hormonal mating ritual. The pubs were so packed you couldn’t move. Apparently there are no maximum occupancy limits in Ireland. We’d have been seriously shish-kebobed if there’d been a fire.
Competing music filtered out of the pubs. Not only that, a local man set up his sound system in the plaza so older couples could dance in peace. The festival wasn’t just for lonely hearts hoping to find their true loves. It also attracted couples who wanted to relive their youth and horny bachelor farmers out for a good shagging. (This cracked me up. I’d never heard of bachelor farmers before. From what I gather, they generally live with their mothers on old family homesteads; no wonder they flocked to the festival!)
On the “less” side, the matchmaking festival wasn’t internationally known like I portrayed it in Kilmoon. The real matchmaker, Willie Daly, wasn’t larger-than-life or tricked out with an uncanny ability to match people. Most of all, and to my dismay, he charged for his services. I’d become so immersed in my fictional world that economics hadn’t occurred to me.
So how does it work, integrating research into a work-in-progress? It’s an interesting process of observing, absorbing, and noting every detail you can and then forgetting those details. What I’m left with are essenses. For example, I distinctly remember the feeling of being crammed inside a pub like a sardine. Talk about sensory overload! I didn’t last long before I had to get the heck out of there. Unfortunately, it took me thirty minutes to do so.
I transferred the squished sensation to my protagonist Merrit. She’s infiltrated her long-lost father’s—that is, the matchmaker’s—annual birthday party so that she can check him out from afar:
Merrit pressed herself against the wall as more people squeezed into the pub and the entire crowd shifted. The Plough was a genteel but shabby place, full of wood paneling and brass fixtures that used to gleam. The largest selection of whiskey bottles Merrit had ever seen hung upside down on the wall behind the bar. With fake nonchalance, Merrit sipped her two ounces of Bushmills and nodded at the old gents seated to her left. Wedged in good and tight between them and the gift table to her right, she felt somewhat protected from the buffeting crowd, somewhat invisible, somewhat safe to observe Liam in peace.
She’s in a very public setting with a very private agenda, and the evening is about to turn disastrous. (The description of the pub is based on my favorite pub in Lisdoonvarna.)
My festival research found its way into Kilmoon in subtle ways. Here’s Kevin, the matchmaker’s son:
Kevin parked alongside the plaza, hardly aware of the drive from home much less the half bottle of Jameson’s he’d just sucked down. Across the street and half a block down stood the village church and between him and the church, two pubs. Tourists and locals alike drifted between them. Lonnie’s death hadn’t lessened the festivities in the plaza. In fact, Michael, the bakery owner, had set up his sound system, and dozens of couples swung around in time to tinny-sounding Celtic jigs.
The drifting tourists and locals, the music, the dancers—that’s what I remember—but I filtered the facts through Kevin’s conflicted psyche. As the scene progresses, we learn why he’s unsettled.
What about Willie Daly, the real matchmaker? Did he factor into revisions? No. I knew my matchmaker, and I knew him well. He was his own person by then. That said, I was relieved to learn that in Ireland a matchmaker could be a local celebrity. Willie Daly probably still has his own room in a pub called “Matchmaker Bar.” Even my matchmaker doesn’t have that!
You might be wondering whether I got a little frisky at the festival. The truth is between me and my travel journal. All I’ll say is research in the name of fiction can be fun indeed.
Lisa Alber received an Elizabeth George Foundation writing grant based on Kilmoon. Ever distractible, you may find her staring out windows, dog walking, fooling around online, or drinking red wine with her friends. Ireland, books, animals, photography, and blogging round out her distractions. Lisa lives in the Pacific Northwest. Kilmoon is her first novel. You can find Lisa at: website | Facebook | Twitter | blog.
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