While in Cambodia, I am doing the bulk (I hope) of my research for my next novel which is also going to be set here. Without giving anything away, it will concern caring for children land mine victims. Cambodia is still among the countries most riddled with live landmines and villagers are constantly stumbling upon them. The devastation they cause is just one more enormous obstacle facing this country. I wanted to learn more about them, how they work, and how victims are rehabilitated. In Siem Reap I visited the Land Mine Museum which was founded and is still run by Aki Ra, a Cambodian who has made it his life’s work to defuse mines throughout the country. Here in Phnom Penh I visited the Kien Khlang National Rehabilitation Center, and the Cambodian School of Prosthetics and Orthotics (CSPO) which is run by the UK-based NGO, Cambodia Trust, and which trains technicians to create the devices, fit them to the patients and oversee their physiotherapy.
As a bit of a science nerd, I found all this absolutely fascinating. As a writer, I’m intrigued with the power of the visual images and the experience of actually being present in such places. Already I can feel the book taking shape, new plot tributaries being dug and, as always, new characters being born. Yesterday, I spoke to a group of 85 teenage students in the International School of Phnom Penh, and this idea of how one researches a novel was the main question which kept coming up. They couldn’t believe that my research for A Clash of Innocents was all done via holiday snaps and internet searches, but it was. To write Tangled Roots I did take a trip to Moscow with specific research needs in mind and it certainly made a huge difference, but a writer can’t always travel such distances and not all writers feel the need to. I have now done it both ways and although both ways work, I personally find that my own need for verisimilitude is so strong that I do prefer actually having the chance to visit the place I’m writing about. But the good news, strangely enough, is that my memory is so bad that despite photos and notes, much of what I have experienced on site will undoubtedly become very hazy by the time I sit down to write. It’s the confluence of experience and imagination which works best for me, I think. Where in the world I will actually be sitting when the writing takes place is another interesting question, though…..