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The International Writers Magazine
: Researching the Novel

James Skinner on researching the novel

I assume that most of you out there have never heard of this man. Neither had I until I read recently about his crimes and his subsequent conviction. He is just another one of my characters. OK, I guess I ought to go back to the beginning. It all started as a short story. It then developed into a motion picture script, and is now about to be completed as a full blown future ‘best seller’.
I’m talking about my book of course, ‘The Goa file’.


The Argentine Government, in April of 1982 invaded the Falkland Islands, a British colony in the South Atlantic. Hundreds of books, both fiction and fact have been written about the event. ‘The Battle for the Falklands’, a joint account written by Simon Jenkins, a former editor of the Evening Standard and Max Hastings, world renowned and scarred war correspondent, is probably the best documentary that describes the background that lead up to the event, and the facts on the war itself. I had been toying for years of writing a fictional account about the conflict but using a different angle. I had to somehow involve the Anglo-Argentine community who suffered for months as both Argentine and British forces battled for the islands. I created Colonel David Jones, an Argentine army officer, descendent from the Patagonian Welsh who finds himself, literally in the wrong place at the wrong time. This was my original attempt at becoming a novelist. I then went to Falmouth College of Arts to study professional writing, met up with Hackwriters editor, Sam North and the rest is academic history. Anyway, back to the essay.

My short story was relatively simple. The Argentine military dictatorship is plotting to invade the Falklands. This guy Jones is in a senior position in the Presidency but gets caught up in a sub-plot to blow the lid on the scheme by a bunch of Anglo-Argentine quasi-terrorists. He is eventually caught out and has to run for it across the river to neighbouring Uruguay. Irrespective of the known historical conclusion, my second attempt, the script, fell flat on its face. I had submitted it to various agents and one was kind enough to write back with: ‘Good story, dull character. Try a book version’.

Despite my tutor giving me a ‘pass’ as it was part of the Falmouth college diploma course, I chucked it in the bin.

Months went by and although I did nothing about it, I was determined to write a story about one of the most stupid wars of the XX century. It continued to fascinate me. The thought kept coming back to that last statement from the agent, ‘try a book version’. This time I was not going to screw it up, so I began to really investigate the facts about the war and the events that lead up to the original invasion. That is when I realised that I had embarked on what all writers know is essential in a project like this. I started to do serious research. Before I realised it, I was navigating for hours on the Internet, purchasing more books on the contemporary history of Argentina, rummaging through the myriad of stuff out of my own closet such as various weird and bizarre booklets, old travel brochures, maps and economic reviews of the time period. I even suggested to my wife that we take a ‘short’ trip back to Buenos Aires to check on the minute details for my book. I had to stop there. ‘Falmouth was enough,’ she said.

I’m probably preaching to the converted if any of you are real writers, but let me give you a few example questions on my list.
Where was the British Embassy located in Buenos Aires twenty years ago?
How long did it take on a train journey from Buenos Aires to Cordoba in 1973?
What was the exchange rate of the US$ to the Argentine peso in 1968?
Was the Argentine Air force still using DC3 aircraft in the early nineteen seventies?
These are the incidentals. How about the bigger issues?

Who was the head of the CIA in 1979? When did Jimmy Carter become President of the USA? Where was the School of the Americas, the infamous US military training centre in Panama, actually located?

After a while, however, I began to realise that my research was actually running the story line. The deeper I delved into the history of Argentina in the latter part of the last century; I was creating and building my characters. It suddenly occurred to me that the Falklands war itself was just the climax. What was going on in the country dating back to the mid-nineteen forties was the real important issue. I was subconsciously altering the main theme and although my Colonel David Jones continued to appear, at least during the first three quarter’s of the book, as a naïve twit. The real plot began to centre on the whole of the dirty war. Thus a new character was ‘born’ known as Commander Fernandez, a ruthless yet clever military secret service agent.

Let’s return to the results of my research.
Pieced together are all the historical events that occurred in the whole of the continent dating back to the mid-fifties, coupled with the tremendous influence of ‘big brother’ up north. This is what really constitutes the backbone of the plot. Ever since Fidel Castro took over in Cuba, and his Lieutenant ‘Che’ Guevara embarked on a campaign to spread communism throughout the continent in the early sixties, the CIA and the Pentagon continually waged war against any type of subversion that smelt of Marxism. Thus the Generals in practically every corner of Latin America, trained by the US military, began a so called ‘cleansing’ campaign that stretched from the cacti on the Texan border down to the penguins in Tierra del Fuego.

I had no idea of the filth and human carnage that took place, in the name of democracy and freedom, to purge out the ‘reds’ of the American continent. Apart from Jimmy Carter, every other US president from Kennedy to Reagan was on the bandwagon, although they were not entirely aware of the details of the atrocities that were being committed. The worst crimes took place in an area known as the Southern Cone that comprised Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.
So who was Scilingo?
This guy was a junior officer in the Argentine Navy who, between 1976 and 1983, used to bump off young innocent men and women who did not conform to the so called ‘Christian’ ethics imposed by the military junta at the time. He would accompany groups of them, drugged and stripped naked, on a plane journey out to sea. Once over the ocean he would just throw them out. Adolfo Scilingo is the latest member of original murderous lot to be convicted by the Spanish courts with a 640 year jail sentence for his crimes.

© James Skinner. 2005-7

Read an extract of James Skinner's book here

The Goa File   Author: James G. Skinner
Paperback (pp: 395) ISBN: 978-81-8253-079-9
Availability: In Stock (Ships within 1 to 2 days)
Publisher:, Allahabad, India
Pub. Date: Jan 2007
James G. Skinner, as he is know to his friends in Vigo, Spain was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is a retired telecommunications expert who has travelled the world over having worked for some of the greatest of todayıs conglomerates such as Cable & Wireless, US Sprint and British Telecom. Having lived in many different and disparate countries spread across several continents, his knowledge of and experience with people from different ethnic groups and social backgrounds is second to none. He is a regular writer ­ in Spanish ­ in the local papers of Galicia and is currently the Honorary British Consul in the region. (read more)

James Skinner is a journalist and commentator on contemporary Spanish affairs.

*Also about book Research: When to stop reading and start your novel
Sam North
A profile of three novels and the research behind them


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