‘Researching, like writing, is an individual, creative process.’ So says Ann Hoffman, author of Research for Writers, one of the best books on the process. In fact, I would argue that sometimes researching feels more creative than writing – if only because you are truly able to let your mind wander in whatever direction the subject takes you without constraint. When you are researching you are not bound by form or narrative, your responsibility lies in uncovering layer upon layer of a subject until you are down to the bare bones. The creative process begins in the aftermath of your discoveries when you begin to interpret the material, to decide which story you’re telling and how you will go about it. But before you even arrive at the beginning of your adventure, something has to draw you in; something has to make you commit to a virtual marriage with your subject.
Owen Sheers wrote his first non-fiction narrative, The Dust Diaries, after finding a book in his father’s study. This led him into an exploration of the life of his great, great uncle Arthur Cripps – who happened to be both a poet and a missionary in Southern Rhodesia. For me, two seemingly random events collided several years apart. The first was when I discovered, by chance, that my grandfather may have been Anglo-Indian. The second happened when, while I was researching Welsh personalities for a television documentary, I came across a story about an actress who claimed to be Indian but was always referred to as having Welsh or Irish parents. The story stayed with me while I researched other projects including several documentaries on iconic singers – all of whom had various complex and conflicting problems – but none of them concerned identity. They all knew exactly who they were and where they had come from.
When I finally got around to doing some serious research on the ‘Welsh actress’, I began to realise it was the stories in and around her life that were consuming me. The beauty of research is that it enables you to ask questions obsessively: ‘why’ and ‘how’ and ‘what happened next’. Sometimes they are unanswerable and sometimes I am unable to see what’s in front of my face. But all of them led me to what lies beneath the surface – the perils and pleasures of research immersing me again and again in a life less ordinary than my own.
Uncovering random pieces of extraordinary information is one of the best bits about writing a biography – long after you’ve given up trying to weave them into your narrative you remember them with the kind of fondness you have for long lost childhood friends. My current favourite is discovering that Myrna Loy, one of Hollywood’s most famous and highest paid stars in the 1930’s was of Welsh descent. In an article first published in Modern Screen entitled 'The Truth about the Mysterious Miss Loy', Grandmother Williams (Loy’s father’s mother) is held responsible for that ‘Celtic something’ in Loy’s ‘calm, provocative face’. Strange and haunting are the tales told of Grandmother Williams, of her fascination and courage, her Welsh wit and wisdom, the aura of mystery that always hovered over her...