Roald Dahl the researcher. How did Roald Dahl research his stories? We take a look at the June chapter of Roald Dahl's My Year to find out.
Roald Dahl’s My Year is a book that describes his love of the natural world, and the flora and fauna that he was lucky enough to be surrounded by throughout his life. From guillemots soaring off the Pembrokeshire coast to wildflowers growing on Buckinghamshire country paths, My Year celebrates them all.
Roald’s knowledge of nature was huge, and he was an enthusiastic collector of recondite facts but of course he had to learn it all in the first place. In the entry for June in My Year he describes his favourite book of knowledge:
When you hear a bird singing or merely chirping in a tree, look for it and find it and then try to identify it. It is well worthwhile getting a little book with colour plates to help you. There are several good ones on sale, including my favourite, called The Observer’s Book of Birds, which is small enough to put in your pocket.
For an avid bird watcher like Roald, this was an absolute necessity.
Roald loved to research things, and he often used thesaurus and encyclopaedias to make his books even better. These certainly helped him make up some of his more frothbuggling words! He also kept rhyming dictionaries and poets’ handbooks close by to help him out with his verses and poems. He put these in his Writing Hut, close to his chair so he could easily reach out and grab some inspiration, as you can see below.
Research was often the very first step in Roald’s book writing process. The beginnings of Matilda include pages and little sketches of how eyes worked, and James’s insect friends are certainly a product of all his note taking. Before Roald wrote James and the Giant Peach he made pages of notes about different types of insects, recording what they looked like and little titbits of information about them. Even when writing about talking centipedes and earthworms, Roald wanted to make sure it was as accurate as possible!
When he couldn’t find the information he wanted in a book, he would write letters to anyone and everyone who might know a thing or two. Lucky recipients of Dahl’s questioning were scientists at the Natural History Museum, and the Science Correspondent for The Times. One newspaper article Roald was particularly fond of was ‘My Sweet Days to Christmas’ by Gillian Widdicombe. Roald loved it so much he clipped it out of The Observer and kept in his research notes. The article was a short history of chocolate bars, and brought together two of Roald’s favourite things – chocolate and facts!
Before Roald was even writing books he spent a lot of his free time learning all sorts of things. He spent a large portion of his young adult life in the United States where he made regular visits to the New York Public Library.
Above is a section from his extensive library card, which recorded every book he ever took out. From this we know that as well as checking out some of his favourite fiction, he also read a huge amount of non-fiction books. These range from books on butterflies to Darwin’s Natural History, to gardening books, and facts from these would have entered Roald’s head, waiting to be used in a book one day.
From James’s insects to Matilda’s eyes, there was a little bit of investigation that went into almost every one of Roald’s books. They are a wonderful mixture of great imagination and a lot of research into the world around us.