Research research research . . .

I just spent two days in the British Library – separated by the Easter break – researching for a chapter in my forthcoming book Australia and how to find it about famous writers who visited Australia in the 19th century and what they said about it. (Early draft cover below.)

I had allotted myself one day to cover both Anthony Trollope and Mark Twain, but in the event it took two intensive five-hour days to cover them both, even sketchily. And as I was laboriously copying out yet another Twainesque witticism about, for instance, the absence of colonial governors – ‘The continent has four or five governors . . . but you will not see them. When they are appointed they come out from England and get inaugurated, and give a ball, and help pray for rain, and get aboard ship and go back home. . . ’ – or the multiple gauges in the Australian railway system which meant passengers had to constantly change trains. . . ‘At the frontier between NSW and Vic our multitude of passengers were routed out of their snug beds by lantern-light in the morning in the biting cold of a high altitude to change cars on a road that has no break in it from Sydney to Melbourne! Think of the paralysis of intellect that gave that idea birth . . .’[1] I was aware that while I filled several pages for each of them, probably less than 5% of it would actually appear in the book, which got me thinking:

There must be a more efficient way to do this.

‘This’ meaning research in general. Over the years that I’ve been studying Australian colonial history and filled notebook after notebook and hard drive after hard drive I’ve come to realise how relatively little of it actually reaches the pages of my books. How a week’s work in a library can end up distilled into a paragraph, or a sentence, or maybe into thin air.  At a generous guess I would estimate around 10-20% of my research ends up in my books; and the more I do this and the more ruthless I become with myself the less of it I wind up using.

On reflection research is a bit like travelling, and you can approach it in one of two ways:
1) you make a list of sites you want to see, you go there, take pictures, don’t get distracted, tick it off the list, move on to the next one, repeat procedure, go home. Or
2) you can wander around the streets without any particular purpose, maybe taking in a famous site or two, but if you spot something interesting down a side street then you can investigate that and who knows what delights you may come across?

I find myself choosing the second method, not deliberately perhaps, more by default, or ignorance, or because I am never quite sure what it is I am researching in the first place. It is an expensive way to do things timewise but it’s a lot more fun because of the unexpected treasures you come across on the way. Hence my book (second draft cover below).

The book is intended as a kind of taster or introduction to my two heavily-researches tomes on my Australian family history – The Worst Country in the World and A Country to be Reckoned With. It contains observations and anecdotes about Australia and Australians I felt I could not include in my other books – the sort of stuff you find down the side streets, you could say.

If I can ever get to the end of it it will be published some time later this year.

And meanwhile I have to acknowledge my total failure to refine my research methods. But I am acquiring massive amounts of information. If I could retain half of it I could go on Mastermind.  

© Patsy Trench

Anthony Trollope (wikipedia)

[1] The Wayward Tourist, Mark Twain, Melbourne University Press, 2006. Edited extracts from Following the Equator, 1897