Pauline Conolly in the archives at Lochgilphead.  The joy of research.
On the hunt.

I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity. Eleanor Roosevelt.

What wise words;  especially for future scientists….and writers! English crime novelist Ann Cleeves was  asked what motivated her to become a writer and her answer was; ‘Curiosity’. When she was a probation officer she was fascinated by the reports on her clients. However, she was frustrated and upset that she was unable to change the outcome of cases and began to write fiction.

I think curiosity is the only trait I have that gives me any licence to write. I was the child who sat quietly listening to all the dark old family stories told over endless cups of tea. I write non-fiction, which is why many of my stories have no ‘happy’ endings…or any resolution at all for that matter.

Curiosity drives research.

Research in libraries, oh the joy!

These days one’s curiosity can often be satisfied via Google, but writers like me still need to delve into old manuscripts within libraries.

What wonderful places they are. My personal feelings are similar to those expressed by Germaine Greer;

Libraries are reservoirs of strength , grace and wit, reminders of order, calm and continuity, lakes of mental energy, neither warm or cold, light or dark…In any library of the world, I am home, unselfconscious, still and absorbed.


However, Germaine did not mention the sheer excitement of research. It is a mental treasure hunt, with wonderful moments whenever a nugget of vital information appears.

Author Stephen Scheding understood perfectly. While researching his book A Small Unsigned Painting, he spent hours at Sydney’s Mitchell Library searching for a telephone number in an old directory. His joy when successful was unbounded; ‘I can’t believe it. I want to shout out in the vast muffledness of the library. I want to tell all the other researchers. I know that they would just love to share my triumph…..I rudely jump the queue at the front desk to get the Sands NSW Directory off the reference shelf. I haven’t got time to explain my frenzied manner, but I’m sure the other researchers in the queue would understand…..’   Yes, we would, Stephen.

I suspect it was the gleam in the eye of people like Scheding and myself that prompted the NSW State Library to hang a sign on the stairs asking patrons not to slide down the bannister. (It has since been removed, which I hope does not reflect diminished enthusiasm.)

It occurs to me that  all this explains why I love to be at fishing harbours when the tide is out. My partner thinks it just looks messy, with all the anchor chains and seaweed and lopsided boats. But I love the chance to see what’s underneath the surface. It would be even better If I could run a metal detector along the sand.

Mysteries revealed

I have more library cards than credit cards. They allow me entrance to half a dozen public libraries, the Mitchell Library’s Special Collections, the Australian National Library,  and the British Library.  For one  magical week I also held temporary membership of the Bodleian, in Oxford.

I was issued with a readers’ ticket when I was researching my book The Water Doctor’s Daughters. As part of the Bodleian’s strict admission procedures, I was required to make an oral declaration promising not to steal or deface books or , ‘ bring into the library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame.’ When I finally entered the ancient Duke Humphrey room I experienced the same feeling of awe described by Charles Lamb;

‘What a place to be in is an old library! It seems as though all the souls of all the writers that have bequeathed their labors to these Bodleians were reposing here, as in some dormitory or middle state. I do not want to handle, to profane the leaves, their winding sheets.’

Duke Humfrey Room at Bodleian Library. My research here was a dream come true.
The Duke Humfrey Room

The Bodleian is strictly a research library, so you are not allowed to actually borrow the books. Mind you, King Charles I was not allowed to either.


I do love author Nicholas Shakespeare’s words on research;

‘So much of research involves combing for wayward threads. Most of the time you pluck and what comes away is fluff. Just occasionally, as in fishing, the line goes taut and you feel a tug like a submerged handshake.’

I almost missed one of those tugs while researching the life of the controversial Tasmanian surgeon Victor Ratten. Leaving his position as bank clerk in a rural New South Wales  town in 1897,  20 year old Victor was presented with a gift and wished bon voyage. I presumed he had left for Sydney, where he initially trained as a dentist.   It was months before the words bon voyage penetrated my consciousness. Surely that suggested travel by sea rather than an overland  journey to the city?

Eureka! More  investigation came up with one tiny reference to Victor and a friend setting off from Sydney on a world bicycle tour.  Mind you, I don’t think they got far, because I could not find another word. However, it revealed a great deal about Victor Ratten’s character.

Curiosity drives research.

No cure for curiosity?  Well thank goodness for that, Dorothy.

By the way, my associate Editor Des loves setting off on a research trip as much as I do.

Editor Des packing for a research trip.
Camera….check, notebook…..check.

You forgot your pen, Des.

UPDATE – In these troubled times of the Covid19 pandemic I am reminded that research can also be an escape from reality. It has certainly helped me retain my sanity!

For wiser words on research than mine, CLICK HERE.

  1. Oh how wonderful to read this article. I am constantly intrigued by my 5 year old granddaughter’s curiosity. When she was 3 I saw her looking up a garden tap to see where the water came from. She turns things over or opens them to see how something works or what is inside. I love watching her curious little mind at work!
    Thank you again.

    • Pauline

      Well, make sure she never loses that curiosity, Lorraine. As you can see from my VERY varied posts, I am just driven by it…. even at my advanced age.

  2. What a wonderful post, Pauline – curiosity, yes indeed! Stephen Scheding’s quote found a loud echo in me – that’s exactly how I felt on my first visit to York Library, many years ago. Discovering the twist in my family’s history, I wanted to laugh and shout the news to everyone. Plus, it changed my approach to the novel I was planning, and so ‘Louisa Elliott’ was born, while ‘Liam’s Story’ had to wait a while!

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