Research Notes · 03/18/2016

The Maker of Swans

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Paraic O’Donnell writes about The Maker of Swans from Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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By rights, The Maker of Swans ought to have required almost no research at all. The story interleaves two historical periods, forty-odd years apart, that are identified by only a handful of clues. It is set, aside from a few minor offstage excursions (to London, Oxford, Paris, Tangier and the like), in unnamed places.

The reasons for this are partly formal and partly aesthetic. (There are other reasons, too, but I’ll come back to those.) I wanted the book to feel fable-like, at least in some degree, and to create a sense of timelessness, an unfixed sense of place. In trying to achieve these qualities, however, I tried not to lose sight of that fact that a fable-like novel is still a novel. Readers, I reminded myself, have limited patience for mistiness. You have to give them recognisable glimpses of the fabric of the world. Otherwise, they begin to feel disoriented and apathetic. They start to look around anxiously for the exits.

In the matter of time, similarly, a fabulist novel may take certain liberties, but these too have their limits. Even if you don’t supply explicit dates, a novel’s internal chronology has to be reliable. This is especially true if, as is the case in The Maker of Swans, simultaneous events or parallel sequences are narrated from more than one point of view. For all these reasons, it felt necessary to anchor the book in real historical periods, even as I took pains to obscure them.

On the page, then, my chosen historical periods are rendered quite faintly, and it may surprise those who have read the novel to learn that it is supported by a robust and rather elaborate scaffold of chronology. Every significant event in the novel, in fact, occurs on a particular date, and many occur at particular times on those dates, which meant, for instance, that I had to know the time at which the sun rose or set. I had to know these things because, although these dates and times are never given, it is possible, given sufficient determination, to infer or calculate them from those few clues that are provided. As my father used to say, when I wondered why so much care must be taken over, say, a joint on the underside of table: no one will ever see it, but you’ll know it’s there.

So, I developed a detailed but largely secret chronology, which I kept track of — and this seems a scandalously incongruous admission — in a spreadsheet. Secret or not, this chronology was important. Without it, there would have been no reliable way to maintain internal consistency in the novel’s timelines, to ensure that they overlap and intersect in a way that withstands scrutiny. It also allowed me — and this was, for me, an especially solemn obligation — to maintain fidelity with natural events and the passing of the seasons.

Clara, the novel’s central character, has a peculiarly intimate relationship with the natural world, and one that becomes vitally significant as her own nature is revealed. It is an intimacy that is expressed, in large part, in her lovingly meticulous observations. Again, this placed certain obligations on me, but as research goes, I can’t very well claim that they were especially onerous. I had to check, for instance, that the newly emerging foliage of wild garlic would, on a date that is never revealed, be present in sufficient quantity for its scent to be discernible when crushed underfoot. As someone who walks in the woods almost every day, and who is, to say the least, attentive to plant life, this wasn’t exactly a slog. I did have to go to slightly more trouble to verify that one could, on an undisclosed date in January and in a part of England that is only hinted at, find enough daisies (‘five frail specimens’) to make a garland ‘large enough to encircle a child’s wrist’. Again, though, it beats working.

As for the more traditional kind of research, the kind that involves actually looking things up in books (or, as often as not, on the Internet), I did much less, I’m sure, than many writers, but I did far more than may be apparent. I even consulted one or two real experts (the wonderful Helen Macdonald, for instance, kindly provided advice on the care and feeding of cygnets). But if it’s true, as is often said, that a novelist’s research should be unobtrusive, then I think I can claim to have done at least one thing spectacularly right.

Some of my reading on early twentieth century river transport may show through, I suppose, as may my inquiries into estuary fishing or the specifications of Jaguar models from the early 1960s. For the most part, though, I have been almost maniacally thorough in painting over the period features. For all my assiduous studies of its history and topology, the England in which my novel is set is not a historical England but a literary one. It is the England that has persisted in our stories and in our dreams, that has been envisioned over and over again since the Middle Ages, the England of Langland and Chaucer, of Eliot and the Brontës, of Dickens and du Maurier. It is an England of the imagination.

So, you can’t see the details of early twentieth century nautical practices, of the history of railway surveying in rural Kent; of the case law that might have been considered, by a mid-century magistrate in a small town, in the matter of criminal trespass. You can’t see these things because to have made them visible would have broken the spell, would have ruptured the delicate tissues of the world I tried to sustain, flooding my beloved and only faintly real England with the coarse particulars of the actual. You can’t see them, and I doubt you’d find them interesting if you did. But for all that, you may find it dimly reassuring, as perhaps my father will, simply to know they are there.

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Paraic O’Donnell read English & French literature at University College Dublin and holds an M.Phil. in Linguistics from Trinity College, Dublin. He lives in Wicklow, Ireland with his wife and two children. The Maker of Swans is his first novel. ParaicODonnell.com | @paraicodonnell