Tania Unsworth, Children's Writer

Research Madness

30 Aug 2019

Does this ever happen to other writers?

You have to do some research in order to write a story and one thing leads to another, and before you know it, you realize it’s the other way around. You’re not doing research in order to write a story.

You’re writing the story in order to do the research.

My latest book features tigers, so I start reading about them. But once I get going, I can’t stop. I trawl through books of natural history by Richard Perry, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, and George Schaller. I read John Vaillant’s thrilling account of Russian tigers, and Jim Corbett’s tales of man-eaters in India. I pore over field guides and the memoirs of long-forgotten trophy hunters, rediscover Kipling and Peter Matthiessen, bookmark dozens of websites and spend whole afternoons listening to YouTube recordings of tigers growling, chuffing and roaring.

After a while, I stop taking notes for my story and begin taking notes just for the sake of it.Drawings of tigers appear in the margins of my notebook, then pictures of other animals; deer and peacocks and elephants and wild dogs. I fill an entire page with beetles alone. At night I dream of tigers leaping mountains and swallowing the moon. I dream there is one in my suitcase. One morning I wake up from a dream that I can’t remember at all, except that the whole thing was narrated by David Attenborough.

Of all this research, about ten percent ends up in my book, The Time Traveller and the Tiger. The rest of it buzzes and crackles around my brain with nowhere to go.

“Ask me anything about tigers,” I say one evening, out with friends. “Go on, anything.”

“Er…how long do they live?” someone says, after a short silence.

“Around 20 or 22 years in captivity. Usually less than that in the wild. Ask me something hard.”

“What’s their favorite food?” my husband asks loyally.

“Porcupine. Second favorite is wild pig.”

I sit smugly, waiting for the next question. But now they’ve changed the subject. For some unfathomable reason, they’ve begun talking about something completely different.

“Ask me anything about tigers,” I say through the closed door of my teenage son’s bedroom. “Go on, anything.

“Can’t hear you. Got my headphones on.”

“How did you know I said anything then?”

“Still can’t hear you.”

“You are a horrible child and I wish you had never been born.”

“Nope. Sorry. Didn’t catch a word of that.”

I go upstairs to my study and sit down at my desk. It’s covered with books and notes about tigers. There are also tiger figurines, postcards of tigers, a wooden tiger stamp, and a tiny tiger pendant dangling from a red string. I switch on my computer.

Ask me anything about tigers, I type forlornly.

Anything at all…

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