Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Friday, 16 December 2011

Research in Fiction

There is nothing more irritating to a reader than to come across a fact, or description, which they know is incorrect. It is no excuse to say it is only fiction. Admittedly most writers do use poetic licence from time to time but they know research is like an iceberg with most of it hidden in the writer’s mind and only the salient points showing in the story. Readers of fiction are not looking for a lecture. If they were searching for facts they would choose a book on the subject. Nevertheless it makes a book more interesting, and more memorable, if the reader absorbs some new fact or detail, without being distracted from the enjoyment of the story.
                When I began writing sagas set at the beginning of the twentieth century I spent a lot of time at our local libraries studying the microfiche copies of newspapers. The librarians always helped me find the relevant periods. Newspaper advertisements provide background details - from clothes, materials, prices, foods, furniture, tools and items in everyday life at that time. I confess I often got side tracked with things which had no relation to the book I was writing. One example was discovering Clydesdale horses were regularly exported to Canada from the port of Annan. It seems incredible considering the near derelict state of the small port as I know it. It can barely accommodate a small fishing boat today, though I believe there are plans to renovate it as a tourist attraction. Immigrants embarked on the long journey to Canada from Glencaple, now no more than a small village on the River Nith.
                Over the years I have accumulated a large number of books which I still enjoy using for research, especially the real life events of the twentieth century. Where these slot seamlessly into the lives of my fictional characters I include them to help fix the period in the reader’s mind. Sometimes they affect the life of a character, as when war is declared and a man is forced to join the army, or a major flood or accident.
                Younger writers may find it difficult to believe the valuable research tool of the World Wide Web only became freely available with an announcement on 30th April 1993. It is astonishing how it developed from then to 2000 and how much we can discover today with the press of a few buttons and access to the internet. Even so it is usually advisable to check more than one source if the information is vital to the plot.
                Sometimes it is not only facts we need but also the feel, the atmosphere, maybe the smell or sound or taste of a scene. I am always diffident about asking people for help with research, especially when it is only for a small part of my novel, but that small part is important and it is essential to get it right. Recently I needed information concerning the work and procedures in a certain part of the police force. Eventually, and not without trepidation, I wrote to our local constabulary. I need not have worried because they could not have been more helpful. I really enjoyed meeting with the young police sergeant. (Doctors and policeman are all getting younger these days even if it is only in my eyes!). I learned all sorts of details which may have seemed insignificant, but which I could only learn from a person genuinely interested in his work and doing it on a daily basis.
                In conclusion I have to say research is never finished. My next project is to discover the effects and emotions of losing a limb. Romance? Where is the romance in that I hear you cry. All I can say is that my characters do have problems to overcome but they also have courage and hope and love.

13 comments:

  1. A nice summary of the importance (as well as the pleasure) of proper research, Gwen. And you're so right to stress the importance of the senses - it's not just the facts of a time and place readers like, it's the feel and smell of it, the sounds of hooves rather than cars. We have to share our characters' experiences otherwise, they stay inert.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Very interesting, Gwen. It's the iceberg principle too, isn't it? You may not use all of your research but the fact that you have the knowledge somehow imbues the story with authenticity and gives readers confidence that they're in good hands.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thank you Bill and Maggie. It is good to know that two experienced writers such as yourselves, approve and appreciate the importance of all aspects of research. Atmosphere, added to the historical details, were the things I appreciated about your One Sweet Moment, Maggie -a rivetting story too of course.

    ReplyDelete
  4. A very interesting and informative post, Gwen. I will be interested too in hearing more about your missing limb research!

    Janice xx

    ReplyDelete
  5. I've listened on audio recently to Bill Bryson's history of the home - full of facts, sounds, smells from the past. Also, the Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval Britain - a fantastic book. They make the past come alive - and are wonderful source material if you're working in the right periods. You are so right, Gwen - getting the detail right is really important.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Interesting post, Gwen. Having more information than you need for your writing increases your confidence in your material, and I'm sure that's conveyed to your readers.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thank you Janice, Jenny and Joan - all these `J's! It is surprising how times and customs change. Mobile phones are one invention which have to remembered - whether or not they were in common use at the relevant time. I'll let you know when I've found the missing limb, Janice!

    ReplyDelete
  8. This is a great post Gwen - full of information and advice. I think just about any writer - seasoned or rookie - could learn a lot from this.

    When writers get their facts wrong it can destroy the story - likewise when they weigh everything down with tons of un-necessary detail just to prove they've done their homework.

    You use your research wisely Gwen, to bring stories, places and characters to life. Thanks for sharing some of the tips!

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thank you for your lovely comment, Gilly. My head would swell, except that I always have this dread of getting something really wrong. The funny thing is it's the small things I often query e.g when safety pins were invented.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Excellent post on the importance of research, Gwen. Sounds like you go that extra mile to ensure accuracy which can only benefit the reader!

    ReplyDelete
  11. Hi Rosemary - we can only try, and hope we have got things right.

    ReplyDelete
  12. This might come through twice.....a glitsch here....
    When researching historicals touch is something often overlooked, so I've been told. A friend of mine is researching for a novel about the first women in the police force and was able to get access to a uniform....and touch it....she said the feel of it against her skin brought the period very alive. Note to self....include touch more!

    ReplyDelete
  13. This might come through twice.....a glitsch here....
    When researching historicals touch is something often overlooked, so I've been told. A friend of mine is researching for a novel about the first women in the police force and was able to get access to a uniform....and touch it....she said the feel of it against her skin brought the period very alive. Note to self....include touch more!

    ReplyDelete