Research

Ben More from Ulva 21st July 2021

When I write, it’s the research that I like the most. Whether I’m looking at Celtic mythology or clockwork mechanisms through the centuries; theories on climate change or the view from one small island to another (like the one above) – the research keeps me involved in the story.

During the 2020 Pandemic, I had to rely mainly on the internet as travel was restricted, and using tools such as Google Maps is almost as good as being there. I say almost because you can’t beat physically being in a location. Take the view above as an example, not the best photograph I’ve ever taken but to get there I had to take three ferries, the last one a small 8 person boat across a narrow strait of seawater shared with a canoeist and two young swimmers who I’m sure were doing it for fun rather than to avoid paying the ferryman. The heat was very un-Scottish at 26 ºC, with the slightest sea-breeze carrying a tang of seaweed and ozone which was insufficient to cool me down. Layered over that were wild flower notes to produce a cocktail good enough to drink. It’s no wonder poets turn all whimsical by the seaside.

One thing I find strange is that there doesn’t appear to be a word for the smell of the sea. If you’re walking after a fresh rainfall then there’s a word for the characteristic smell of rain on pavements or rock – petrichor. This is a fairly recent word, named by Australian scientists in 1964 and made from the Greek Petra (for stone) and Ichor (for blood of the gods).

The smell of the sea at low tide is from chemicals called dictyopterenes, which are sex pheromones produced by seaweed eggs to attract the sperm. And on top of all this is the iodine smell of the sea, which is actually the bromophenols produced by marine worms and algae. If I combine the Greek for sex (fylo) with sea (Thalassa) I come up with the sea smelling of fylothalassa (or sexsea). And this is the trouble with research, start off with something entirely innocent and before you know it you’re up to your neck in the strangest diversions taking you well away from the route you initially had planned!

Back to the research. So I’m looking at this view, imagining a storyline running like a film in my head and breathing in the fylothalassa in the heat of the day, seeing the clouds folding around Ben More in the distance and suddenly everything is that more real. That’s why I do the research, so I can place myself in the story, describe what I see, hear and smell – and if I can do a good enough job of that then I can hopefully take the reader with me.

Accomplished writers I’m sure can do this without stirring from their comfortable chair, but if I’m not physically there then I can’t see what’s happening. In my imagination there’s a yacht not too far away, imprisoned on board is my main character and a supporting cast who develop features and characters until they become fully formed – as real as you and I. The smooth talking captain; the wiry criminal sidekick and his thuggish mate making up the crew. Wind ruffles the sails, you can hear how slack they are as they wait for a decent breeze to pick up. Out on the water, seal heads poke up inquisitively before ducking back down again like seaborne whac-a-moles. Overhead the unmistakable outline of a sea-eagle, its tail as white as a summer cloud, wings ending in feathery fingers feeling each nuance of the wind.

I now know how this goes. Being here is like placing another piece in a puzzle and revealing more of the picture. This is how writing is for me: doing a jigsaw puzzle without the benefit of an original picture to work from. To start with, I’m working blind – going by shapes and patterns until I can see what I’m making; fitting it all together until the final reveal. This isn’t a perfect analogy – some of the pieces don’t fit and have either come from another jigsaw altogether or require shifting around, modified or even hammered into place.

The best thing about it?

Being there

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