Paige Toon: Going on a Journey with a Character

Paige Toon: Going on a Journey with a Character

I actually heard about the events as they were unfolding live from someone who helped with my research for The One We Fell in Love With. Mel works on the Aiguille du Midi, and she was at the top of the mountain when the cables that link her station to Helbronner in Italy became tangled in high winds.

I was first put in touch with Mel a couple of years ago after visiting Chamonix with my family and being so inspired by the mountain setting that I decided to set part of my next book there. The One We Fell in Love With is about identical triplets, one of whom is Phoebe, an adventurous, outgoing girl who, like Mel, works on the Aiguille du Midi cable car. Many of the details Mel shared with me inspired events that occur in the book, so she really helped to bring Phoebe’s story to life.

I’ve always thought writing is a little like acting – if you don’t get inside your characters’ heads and understand what they’re about, then you can’t really portray their emotions. So, research is incredibly important and I’ll forever be indebted to those, like Mel, who help to give my books authenticity.

When I look back over the past ten years, I realise just how many interesting, informative and frankly, fun things I’ve learned.

In Pictures of Lily, I discovered what goes on behind the scenes at a conservation park in the Adelaide Hills – the area of South Australia where I grew up. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to look after a baby koala – I should say ‘joey’ – more in my entire life! For Chasing Daisy – about a girl who works in hospitality for a Formula 1 team – I got a tour of the McLaren racing factory, and I went into the pits at the British Grand Prix. Thirteen Weddings is about a wedding photographer who falls in love with a groom, and I spent so much time with a local wedding photographer that we’ve since become friends. And for last year’s The Sun in Her Eyes, about a girl who goes back to Australia to look after her father when he has a stroke, I spoke to a lovely lady from Stroke Association who taught me so much that I know the knowledge will stick with me forever. The same book also featured a male character who runs a winery, so I also learned about the wine-making process and went for a couple of wine tasting sessions, too. The perks of the job are endless…

When I’m researching a book, I always try to visit the places that I’m writing about. It’s something I’ve done ever since penning my debut novel, Lucy in the Sky, back in 2006, when my lovely mum drove me all around Sydney while I hunted out the places that Lucy and her friends would live, work and play. I’ve lost count of the number of readers who have since told me that they felt like they were in Sydney with Lucy, experiencing the same things she did, so I knew from an early stage that this kind of research is crucial.

I’ve visited and written about Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney in Australia, Key West, Miami, Big Sur, San Francisco and Los Angeles in the USA, Barcelona and San Sebastian in Spain, Cucugnan and Paris in France, London, the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District, Dorset and Cambridgeshire in the UK, to name quite a few. And I’m thinking that if I ever run out of book ideas, maybe I could look into a job as a travel writer, instead…

Funnily enough, my next book, The Last Piece of My Heart, actually is about a travel writer, and there will be plenty of lovely sunny locations, including exotic Thailand and the seaside towns of Cornwall.

Every time I write about a new place, I become so invested in my characters’ stories that I grow very fond of the cities, towns and villages in which they live – almost like they’re as much mine as theirs. For my sixth book, One Perfect Summer, I moved to Cambridge at the point in my story that Alice, my heroine, moves here, and it was magical researching the city that now was my home.

I’ll never forget one of the people who helped me with my research for that book. Alice goes to Anglia Ruskin University, and the professors and students there were all incredibly helpful in showing me around campus and halls of residence and giving me the lowdown on the English literature course that Alice takes. I even wrote three of the students into my book.

But Alice also dates someone who attends the University of Cambridge, and for that, I wanted to go behind the scenes of this elusive and exclusive college. The secretary of the man who helped me with my research was so sure that he would say no, that she forwarded my email on to him and asked a simple, ‘No?’ To her surprise, he agreed, but one of the first things he asked me when we met was not to mention him in the acknowledgements. He said if it got around that he’d helped me – a chick-lit author! – then he’d never live it down.

This amused rather than offended me – the time he gave me was invaluable, and the story still feels so real to me that I can’t walk over Cambridge’s bridges without the characters from One Perfect Summer springing to mind.

At the end of our time together, this man (who, even today, shall remain nameless) admitted he was surprised that an author of my genre would bother to go into so much detail.

It just goes to show what he knows. If we are seeing what our heroines are seeing, and feeling what they’re feeling, then hopefully our readers will see and feel those things, too. And there’s nothing lovelier than escaping from reality for a little while and going on a journey with a character we believe in and relate to.