One of the most enjoyable and challenging things about starting a new novel is learning about something you know absolutely nothing about.
My next novel, Last Survivor, is, like many of my previous books, based on the fight against poaching in Africa. The difference in this book, however, is that instead of focussing on mega-fauna, such as rhinos or elephants, I’ve tackled something I’d never heard of until recently – the trade in endangered plants.
Research is the friend and foe of the novel writer. Get it ‘right’ and your fiction will ring true – even to people who know what you’re writing about; but get it wrong and you’ll totally undermine your credibility among knowledgeable readers.
I’ve learned a few tricks about research over the course of writing my novels, mostly by making every mistake a rookie author can possibly make, and I’d like to share what works for me.
Firstly, I use the internet to stalk people, not to find facts. In the past I’ve made the mistake of trawling the net to find ‘proof’ of a fact that I need in my manuscript. As well as a lot of factual information, there is also a lot of BS online. It’s easy to find what you want, but it may be wrong (that’s happened to me).
Instead, I used the internet, when writing this book, to find experts who knew about Cycads, the subject of my story. A cycad is a plant that looks a bit like a stubby palm tree with overly long spikey leaves. In fact, its closest relative is a connifer, and they even produce cones, like pinecones.
The southern African Encephalartos family of cycads are the most endangered living organisms on the planet. Some species are now extinct in the wild, thanks to the passion of devoted cycad collectors and the greed of the people who steal them from their natural habitat and sell them – for huge amounts of money.
I used the internet to track down a professor of botany and a retired special investigator from the US Department of Fish and Wildlife. My investigator, Ken McCloud, ran a two-year, multi-national undercover operation several years ago that brought down an international ring of cycad smugglers.
These people, rather than books or webpages, became my prime source of research.
The second trick I’ve learned about research is to do it in reverse. I do my detailed research retrospectively – that is, after I’ve finished at least the first or second draft of my manuscript.
I make my books up as I go along – I don’t have a plot – so there’s no point doing too much research before I start writing. Rather, I write my first draft, letting it flow, and if I don’t know something I just write ‘check’ in the manuscript. After I do my first edit, if I still need that piece of information (sometimes I don’t), I go looking for it.
Having made contact with my experts, I can now approach them with a specific list of questions that relate to the missing pieces of information in my manuscript – that saves their time and mine.
The third tip is to ask your experts to read your manuscript. If you’re reading a novel and the writer has touched on something you know about, then errors will leap off the page at you. By getting my experts to read the whole story they often pick up on incorrect assumptions I’ve made (and, of course, other typos or errors I might also have made).
And finally, when it comes to research, less is more. One of my earlier novels, African Sky, is set on a Second World War pilot training base in Africa. I love aeroplanes and was interested in the period, so I went to town on the research. I let my own interest clutter the story with too much detail and my editor cut back about 60 per cent of the historical information I had jammed into the story.
As the bestselling thriller writer Stephen King says in ‘On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft’ (in my opinion the best book ever written on how to write fiction), when it comes to description “a few well-chosen details will stand for the rest” and so it is with research.
The trick, for me, in Last Survivor was to just provide enough information on cycads – and the type of people who collect them – to make it believable. My aim was to have people who know about plants convinced that I knew what I was talking about, and to provide enough information to enlighten people like me – who know nothing about cycads – but not bore them. I hope I achieved that.
That’s not to say that research can’t be fun. During a trip to London, while writing ‘Last Survivor’ I made a visit to the Kew Botanical Gardens and checked out the rarest cycad in the world, Encephalartos woodii, which became extinct in the wild more than 100 years ago.
Cycads need a male plant and a female to reproduce naturally and the only E. woodiis left in existence, in collections, are all males. The premise of ‘Last Survivor’ is that a long-lost female woodii is discovered – a plant that wealthy collectors would pay a king’s ransom to own.
Terrorists want the plant to fund a spectacular attack and the only people who can stop them are middle-aged former mercenary Sonja Kurtz and a team of heavily armed elderly plant fanciers called The Pretoria Cycad and Firearms Appreciation Society.
I hope you enjoy ‘Last Survivor’ and learn something about the trade in endangered plants – but not too much!
Joanne Flack is on the run – suspected of stealing a rare African plant thought to be extinct and worth millions of dollars.
Sonja Kurtz is hired by the CIA to hunt down Joanne and find the link between the missing plant and a terrorist group hiding out in South Africa.
Joanne is a member of the Pretoria Cycad and Firearms Appreciation Society who take it upon themselves to track down the plant … and the traitor in their midst who is willing to kill for it.
Published by Pan Macmillan Australia
Released 30th June 2020
About the Author:
Tony Park is the author of 17 thrillers set in Africa. His 18th novel, Last Survivor, due for release June 30, delves into the little known, but lucrative world of international plant smuggling. As Tony’s research discovered, there are unscrupulous plant-fanciers making a fortune out of smuggling African cycads – rare plants dating back to the Jurassic era – to greedy collectors worldwide.
There’s more about Tony at www.tonypark.net or on your social media platform of choice as tonyparkauthor