When it comes to book research, how far is too far? That’s the question I asked myself as I drove through Wyoming’s Wind River Canyon in a whiteout blizzard, with a jade river churning below. I was on a nine-hour drive along twisting mountain passes in the freezing depths of winter at the time.
It was the first day of a planned 1,800-mile journey across the American West to research my new novel The Glory – the story of an epic 1,200 endurance horse race and the teenage boy and girl desperate to win it. Already I was questioning my sanity. Normal, sane people dream of lying on Caribbean beaches or drinking Sangria in Tuscan villas in their holidays. They don’t seek out savage wolves and bears like Michelle Paver when she was researching Wolf Brother, or trek across the Amazon (Katherine Rundell, author of Rooftoppers and the Wolf Wilder), or take helicopter trips over smoking volcanoes (me while researching Kidnap in the Caribbean), or run barefoot through the woods and allow themselves to be locked in a car trunk with zip-tied hands (Tess Sharpe, author of Far from You).
And those are only the children’s authors.
To be truthful, my journey wasn’t only about book research. I’d dreamed of riding a wild mustang across the giant landscapes of the West since I was a child growing up in Zimbabwe and it was those dreams and the cowboy books I loved that had inspired The Glory, the story of Alex, a girl on the run from the law, and Will, a boy on a mission to save a life. Now I wanted to experience what they were likely to experience – if I survived the blizzards on day one.
Ten days, 1,800 miles and four US states later, I knew the answer to my question. I’d ridden a palomino mustang, rescued from a round-up only a year earlier, through the creeks and mountains of Wyoming in snow, sun and rain. I’d leaned over cliffs, side-stepped a rattlesnake, watched real-life cowboys (wranglers) train quarter horses, touched ancient Native American rock etchings known as petroglyphs, seen great herds of bison and peered into Yellowstone’s steaming geysers.
I’d also eaten many heaps of pancakes, because, obviously, it’s not only important to live like your characters but to taste the sort of things they might eat. The yummy things, naturally, as opposed to the cans of unheated beans, burnt toast and other not so nice meals eaten by my heroes. Without these adventures, The Glory would never have been written.