Research and the illusion of ducks

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Cambridge has quite a few ducks. They float serenely on the Cam like their bath tub counterparts. But under the surface their legs are pushing back the water, working to keep their bodies propelled with a steady grace.

Earlier this week while having my hair cut by a trainee, I thought of ducks and their hidden, hard-working feet. The manager stood by offering hints using words I’d never heard: ‘occipital bone,’ ‘weight line,’ ‘pre-floor test.’ The stylist’s hands chopped as though the extra layer of knowledge she was putting into practice was invisible, and we were casually having a chat.

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Tomorrow I’m off to Spain to research my novel. The Madrid in my mind is the place I lived a decade ago. A caricature of tapas bars and very strong coffee, art galleries and people having dinner at wildly late hours. I’m trying to sweep aside the tricks of memory to get a sense of ‘real’ Madrid (if you’ll pardon the pun) to tick off each location one by one. It may be a tall task for two days.

In exploring the idea of a thriller, I’ve discovered that location can become almost another character and factual detail, the backbone to the plot’s mysterious logic.

So I’m doing the duck-work. Taking pictures and listening. Hoping to gain enough of a sense of the place to paint something plausible. So that whatever ends up on the page gives the illusion of a reality, without – I hope – revealing the leg-work of getting it there.

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