The challenges of conducting research for a novel during a pandemic

The German Nurse
Book cover for The German Nurse, by Michael Hollows

I don’t think any PhD study goes exactly to plan, but none of us were expecting a pandemic to completely change the face of research within a university context. I remember back in mid-March I was packing and getting ready to head down to the Channel Islands to conduct some research into my latest book.

Alongside my PhD in creative writing I am a working author, and at the start of the year, I was commissioned to write a second historical fiction for my publisher. The German Nurse is a story of the occupation of Guernsey during the second world war. And as you can imagine with any historical setting there is a significant amount of research that needs to be done in order to write it. Books, journal articles, and even maps are all vital resources for this kind of research, but when it comes to portraying a setting there is nothing like visiting the place itself.

So, there I was, my departure to the Channel Islands imminent when, sitting in a coffee shop doing some writing I stumble across a news report of Guernsey’s first case of Covid. As someone who is on the vulnerable list that was terrifying news. The Channel Islands aren’t part of the NHS and the thought of getting locked down in Guernsey was enough to force me to cancel my trip.

Unfortunately, this left me relying on pictures and other articles to get as true a sense of the place as possible. While that meant that particular area of research was quite difficult, there were some quite surprising results. With lockdown and restrictions coming in, perhaps the one positive was that it gave me a unique perspective of what it may have been like to have lived through some of what the channel islanders lived through during their occupation. While I was writing about their isolation, cut off from the mainland, I was stuck at home on my own writing the novel my family miles away, while I was considering how they needed to ration food to feed not only the islanders but the thousands of German soldiers now on the island, I was working out what food I had in the cupboards and how long it would last should I not be able to get to a supermarket or get ill.

It may not have been the same terrifying experience that they suffered, but it did help me to think how much worse things could have been and were for them. It also made me appreciate how much our own experiences influence our research and the worlds around us. This may or may not have made The German Nurse a better, more authentic novel, but only time will tell…


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