Tales from the Falkland Islands…and writing research tips!
I am proud to present a guest post by my friend and mentor, Stuart White. Please read his impressive biography HERE.
Real Research: Writing about faraway places
I’ve been up since dawn and I’m peering across a grim, rain-swept bay to a small mist-shrouded harbor as a ship’s tiny tender battles against the buffeting gale towards the shore.
And not for the first time in my travelling-writing life I wonder,
“What the hell am I doing here?”
“Here” in this case happens to be the Falkland Islands, 8,000 miles from my home in England.
It’s off the tip of South America and there’s nothing south of it except Antarctica.
And the answer – or excuse perhaps – is, I’m doing research on a film script whose locations all lie in South America, the South Atlantic or the Pacific west of that continent.
And my trip is all the more strange perhaps since I actually wrote the script two years ago!
It’s about two now mostly ignored World War One sea battles a hundred years ago involving the British Royal Navy and the German Imperial Navy that were pivotal to the eventual Allied – including American – victory.
It’s also a dramatic story of intense personal and international rivalry involving figures like Churchill and the German Kaiser.
This trip will take me from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Montevideo,
Anchor from the German pocket battleship Graf Spee in Montevideo. The Graf Spee was scuttled in the River Plate just off Montevideo in 1939 after being badly damaged by British ships. It’s relevant to my research because the ship was named AFTER (or for, depending on usage) Admiral Graf von Spee who is the subject of my film script – an Admiral in the First World war. (photo property of Stuart White)
Uruguay; the Falkland Islands; round Cape Horn,
Cape Horn (island) where one goes ’round the Cape’…the very tip of South America. (photo property of Stuart White)
up the Magellan Strait…then the Chilean fjords
Chilean Fjords – photo property of Stuart White
ending at the large port of Valparaiso and the country’s capital, Santiago.
South American Street Scenes
photo property of Stuart White
photo property of Stuart White
It started like this: I was commissioned to write a script called Death at Sea for a Hollywood production company, and duly did. The project is in development right now.
So far the script has had rave reviews. But….I know there’ll be re-writes, there always are. And something nagged at me. I am never comfortable setting one of my books or scripts in a location I’ve never visited.
I’m lucky in that respect as during my career, especially as a journalist and foreign correspondent, I’ve visited more than eighty- five countries, lived in three, including the United States for a total of more than eleven years. (And I’ve visited forty-four of America’s states, too).
I’d even been to four countries in South America. But…I was writing about Montevideo and I’d never been; about the Falkland Islands and…I’d never been. Valparaiso, Chile. Ditto.
So when I happened upon a ship that was visiting all those places on a 15 night voyage I knew I had to take that trip, so that when I eventually come to do the re-write I’ll be better informed.
“How so,” I hear you cry? “Come on Stuart, get with the times dude. With Google anyone can find anything about anywhere; statistics, history, maps, satellite photographs. It’s child’s play. No need to leave your desk.”
Well yes, but in my view also – no. Statistics and dry facts don’t tell you everything. You can’t hear them or see them – not really – and you can’t smell and feel them.
Statistics and dry facts don’t tell you everything.
I’ve read novels and scripts set in places such as Paris, New York, London and I just know the writer has never set foot there. They don’t have the sense of it, the smell of it, and the feel of it.
Absolutely nothing gives you the true sense of a place like going there…then it becomes real, and your book or script leaps from the possibly banal and clichéd (and frequently inaccurate) to one with verite.
I wanted to go to the Falklands because our script centers around two battles. In December 1914 a British fleet sank four German warships and drowned 1,800 German sailors about 40 miles off its coastline. Six weeks earlier a German fleet had sunk two British ships and killed 1,500 men off Coronel in Chile.
I wanted to see exactly where those men died, witness the cruel sea as they did.
I needed to feel the juddering, pitching of a ship beneath me as it battled high seas and howling gales, and try to imagine the terror of being sunk there!
And later in my voyage I had the thrilling – if eerie – opportunity of knowing the exact moment I was sailing over the precise locations where the battles had taken place; and where fathoms below me, the wrecked ships and the hundred year old remains of those brave men lay.
To me that is research. It sends a shiver down my spine now as it did at the exact moment I passed over the locations, to think that what I had written about had one day been cruel reality for these men.
When I come to the inevitable re-write, that will inform and inspire my work as nothing else can.
Next time: Precisely what I did in the Falklands and later locations in terms of actual research; and what the producers had me do also to help with the project.
And how if you can’t afford the time or expense of visiting a location, the best way of putting spice, and smell and feel and atmosphere into your research.