Five tips for researching fiction from author Polly Clark

Author portrait of Polly Clark
Category: Writing

Author Polly Clark shares a few of insights into the research process she’s developed during the writing of her two novels, Larchfield and Tiger.

Research is an iceberg

So much of the best research is invisible, except for the authenticity, depth and confidence it gives your finished work.

Not all research looks alike

Firing a Kalishnikov in the Siberian forest; reading Auden’s notebooks on a special cushion in the British Library; hanging about in zoos; falling in love; falling in lust; tracking people down and turning up at their house to talk to them about their area of expertise; dispensing with embarrassment about asking people things; tracking wild tigers; living on a boat; imagining moments in the life of my dead father from his letters; contacting estranged family members to ask them questions about the past; scouring books on subjects including 1930s society, living wild among animals, tiger sex, quantum physics and the nature of time, motherhood, Shamanism, and SO MUCH POETRY…

Research is as much about feeling and experience as facts and figures

I find writing very close to acting

Making a world, and other minds, for a reader to experience requires creating a recognisable emotional landscape. This can often be excavated from the author’s own experience: in this way I find writing very close to acting. The ability to inhabit an unfamiliar world and populate it with your own authentic emotion is very similar. The detail that is so vital to making a world convincing can be obtained in many ways. It could be through books and the internet, or in some cases by getting your thermals on and travelling to the taiga.

Write what you have conviction about, not necessarily what you know

All my books began with a story I had to tell, or a question I had to find an answer to. Everything, all my life experience and research, is then in service to that idea. Research will develop and amplify your ideas - and in some cases transform them - but no amount of research can mask an idea you’ve no conviction about. You could research for ever, but a driving idea will keep you intent on what really matters. Following your convictions opens up the world and research becomes joy, a catharsis, a creative act. I can honestly say I’ve never been bored. Searching for the answers to my own burning questions has occupied me all my life.

A novel makes its author new in some way – research is part of that

When I researched the life of Auden in Helensburgh for my debut novel Larchfield, my immersion in the detail of the young artist’s life became almost like a friendship. I felt that I knew him – that one specific segment of him – and understanding his particular struggles illuminated my own. Entering the lives and minds of the tigers and people in Tiger has changed me further, giving me a glimpse of optimism about how it’s possible to live in the world, how connected I am to the earth I share. My research and its transformation into fiction have given me peace. Until the next time.


Tiger book cover by Polly Clark
Competition: Win a copy of Tiger

Thanks to the lovely folk at Quercus, we have three copies of Tiger, a bewitching novel that brings together three humans and a tiger in the snow-smothered Siberian forest, to give away. Simply send your answer to the following question to by Wednesday 8 May:

What did Polly try in a Siberian forest for the sake of research?

a) Bungee jump

b) Fire a Kalishnikov

c) Read poetry to a tiger

Polly Clark

Polly Clark was born in Toronto and splits her time between Helensburgh on Scotland’s West Coast and a houseboat in London. Her four poetry collections have between them won the Eric Gregory Award, been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize and the Michael Marks Awards, and selected twice as one of the Poetry Book Society’s books of the year. Her first novel Larchfield won the Mslexia Novel Prize and was published in 2017 to critical acclaim. Her latest novel, Tiger, is out on 2 May.