Research: The Key to Immersive World Building

by Anna M Holmes
published in Writing

When World Building, What Size is Your Canvas? 

If I were a painter, I would daub oil paint across a large canvas. I am not a miniaturist, not one for too much introspection. Back in my dancing days, my dance partner and I choreographed ambitious full-length productions with just the two of us. Later, as an arts manager, I loved producing big-scale theatrical events. When I made a documentary film, it was feature-length. 

As a writer, I love pitching characters into big worlds or challenging situations. In my debut novel, Wayward Voyage, I pitched Anne Bonny into the gritty 18th Century world of piracy. With Blind Eye, I sent my main character into the murky world of illegal logging. Before becoming novels, both stories were conceived as screenplays i.e. visually.

In my novels, I want to put readers bang smack in the middle of my world. But how do you make scenes real?

Let’s begin with research.

Building the world for The Find

My third novel, The Find, was published in autumn 2022. The seed for this story began with my husband. He told me his idea when recovering from a fever, and I reckon his brain was still scrambled! I loved the off-field premise and urged him to write it down. 

The Find is a high concept “What if…?” Here’s the story outline:

When human remains are found deep in an Ireland peat bog, the National Museum of Ireland takes charge, and their bog body specialist, Dr. Carrie O’Neill, begins to investigate. As more is revealed about the bog body, repercussions ripple throughout the world.

I love research, but bog body science? Where to start?

1. Desk Research 

The internet is my friend. I always work with two monitors open, my laptop to write on, and a screen to my left with the internet ready to explore.

Academic papers by scientists are readily available. I read some, gleaning information that might be useful, and I watched YouTube videos of well-known bog body finds being cleaned. That was visceral, and I could imagine myself in a laboratory picking flakes of peat off old leathery mummified skin.

When considering philosophical angles and differing beliefs, I dusted off old study texts, bought or borrowed new ones, and listened to YouTube and podcast lectures.

And Google Earth was a handy tool.

Over several months, I drafted and redrafted The Find manuscript. My husband was fully invested, loved researching with me, and thrilled to see his initial idea flower into a fully visualized world. He made valuable suggestions on edits and additions, and we argued about one of two things… as you do.

Take away: Anything and everything is available to research on the internet. Make use of it.

2. Specialist Advice

Amongst online content, one academic paper caught my eye. It was an undergraduate thesis from a few years earlier dealing with the practicalities and ethics of displaying bog bodies. Just what I needed! I contacted the British University that had published it, reaching out to the student who by then was completing her doctorate. Might she assist me?

Dr. Emma Tollefsen entered the spirit of my story knowing instinctively to keep the scientific touch “light”. She ensured bog body science procedures and timelines were correct and provided specific information I would not otherwise have known. 

I emailed the National Museum Dublin’s Assistant Keeper. This real-life bog-body specialist provided me with readily available documentation.

Take away: Never be embarrassed to reach out to specialists. They’ll usually be happy to help and the worst they can say is “No”.

3. Boots on the Ground

With my husband, we booked five nights in Dublin combining holiday and research.

First to the National Museum’s Archaeological Museum. This institution is central to my story, with one particular (real) exhibition of major significance.

The Kingship and Sacrifice Gallery is where some of the museum’s own bog bodies are displayed. It was important to experience how human remains were sensitively contextualized.

I paid attention to the layouts of museums and worked out the travel time between sites, driving and public transport. I took photos and videos of interiors and exteriors and became familiar with locations that Carrie O’Neill and her colleagues inhabited.

I was disappointed to find the Irish Times building closed with journalists working from home (Covid restrictions) as I had wanted to see where my character, Finn, worked. However, I know the deli across the street is where he’d pick up a coffee, and I passed a newspaper kiosk where he would pick up morning paper. All helps.

I traveled by bus and tram so I could figure which suburbs I wanted Carrie and Finn to live in, taking photos of streets and houses, and figuring out routes to work.

At St. Stephen’s Green, a city park, I recreated one scene where my character, Carrie, is sitting on a bench soaking up the wintry sun. Did a shadow pass across her closed eyelids when someone walked past, as I had imagined? Did the slatted seat move as someone sat at the other end? My husband re-enacted. Yes!

Take away: Experiencing environments for yourself can be invaluable. There are distinctive smells, sights and sounds that can add color to your story, and details you can only pick up by being there.

4. Beta Readers

It was time to test my story. From some, I wanted general reactions, from others I sought specific feedback. Had I got the nuances of Irish life correct and did the dialogue ring true? 

For example, police are called garda in Ireland, but either name is used. Two readers who grew up in Ireland assured me my story felt authentic. Emma gave me the “all clear” on redrafted scientific sections. As The Find touches on faith-based belief, I sought feedback on whether my story might offend? All good.

Take away: Before offering a manuscript for editing/proofreading, prior to publication, you must be confident the world you have created hangs together. Get feedback from a variety of readers who can comment on different aspects of the story. 

Does research work? The proof is in the pudding.

Once published, nothing gives me greater pleasure than endorsements from people who live and breathe the worlds I sought to create. Here are two favorites.

Wayward Voyage: “Anna is a natural storyteller and a gifted writer using colourful language that makes the reader so absorbed they feel part of the adventure.” Jim Lawlor, The Bahamas Historical Society.

Blind Eye: “This book may be a fast-paced environmental thriller, but for me it is real. Thank you.” Dr. Leonie van der Maesen, life-long rainforest campaigner.

Stories with big themes written as page-turners are Anna M Holmes’s speciality. She loves research–exploring and building worlds and complex characters. The Find is her latest novel following Wayward Voyage and Blind Eye. Initially, she worked as a radio journalist before a career in arts management working with UK Arts Councils and as a creative producer. Writing, reading, dance, and yoga shape her life. Originally from New Zealand Anna lives in South-West London.
To discover more about Anna M Holmes you can find her on her website or follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Enjoyed this article?