It was always going to draw a few funny looks - sitting on a crowded train reading an article titled "10 steps to a better orgasm". I mean, I'm a guy - what on earth was I doing reading this? I can only assume my fellow passengers concluded I was bored and had grabbed a discarded magazine or was conducting some sort of research for the bedroom.
The real reason was that I was writing a novel and my lead character was a 25-year-old woman. So this was one of hundreds of articles across dozens of women's magazines I read as the book evolved.
I wouldn't claim for a second that this gave me any sort of comprehensive insight into the female experience or psyche. But when you're creating a character, you have to immerse yourself in their world. This means understanding the big stuff, such as what sort of human being they are and what their dreams are - and it means understanding the small stuff, like which supermarket they shop in and what music they have on their iPod.
As an author, you never use the vast majority of this "research". It merely collectively shapes your character's world view in ways that you're not always aware of. It's largely background, bubbling away in your subconscious. But I figured reading what a lot of women read couldn't hurt. Out went my traditional reading matter, in came a whole new raft of titles including Cosmo, Marie Claire, Company, Glamour and Heat.
I read heavyweight pieces about politics and the Third World, and I read less serious ones about festival looks and stars falling out of nightclubs. I devoured features on travel destinations, must-have handbags and how to spot a love-rat. I learnt how to keep my skin looking young, how to flirt more effectively and how to fast-track my career. I established which superfoods I should be eating, how to study in tandem with my day-job and what breeds of dogs different celebrities have. I am now also acquainted with the torsos of Jamie Dornan and David Gandy.
The process definitely expanded my (admittedly previously limited) cultural knowledge. I wanted to include a playlist and to-read book lists in What She Left, so I had to establish what my protagonist, Alice, would listen to and what she'd read - and I found plenty of guidance in this respect.
On the whole, my research revealed that men and women aren't so very different, after all. It's true that journalism aimed at women is more likely to talk more about physical and mental health issues, but much of the material is ultimately similar. How do we make our way in the world? How do we do right by the people we care about? How can we make a difference? How can we improve our standard of living? How can we enjoy ourselves more?
The truth is, too, I've never bought in to this argument that men can't write women - any more than I believe women can't write men. Writers imagine extraordinary things. They transplant themselves across continents and travel through time. They create whole new fictitious worlds. Compared to these challenges, getting into the head of someone living in the same era and country as you, who happens to be a different gender, isn't such a difficult task. Plus, it's reductive to view your characters in predominantly male or female terms. They're individuals. The question I asked myself when my protagonist was faced with a decision was not: What would a women do? It was: What would Alice do?
As to whether any of my research paid off, and whether Alice is a believable character, that's for readers to decide. Either way, it's been a fun journey. And that orgasm article certainly raised a few eyebrows - mine included.
What She Left by T. R. Richmond is published in hardback by Michael Joseph on 23rd April, priced £12.99Suggest a correction