Hands up how many of you know the difference between how Sunni and Shia Muslims wash in preparation for prayer? Would it matter to you if the detail was wrong in a novel?
The reason I ask is because when I was writing No More Mulberries, a novel set in Afghanistan about Scots-born Miriam and her Afghan husband, Dr Iqbal I came to a section in which I was describing Miriam, who has converted to Islam, getting ready to pray. Half way through the description I had to stop – what I’d been describing was the way Sunnis wash. Miriam’s husband was Shia, and so wouldn’t she have become a Shia? I knew there were differences in how they pray, weren’t there also differences in how they wash?
I know some writers would make a note in the margin or mark the need to answer a research question in some way and carry on writing. How I envy those writers whose creative flow is not interrupted. I can’t carry on until I know. I’ve tried but the question niggles away inside my head until all concentration on getting the story down has vanished. I have to go and look up whatever is bothering me – in this case the correct way of washing before prayers for Shia Muslims. I know I could simply omit the detail. Quite possibly no one is bothered but if I was going to use it, then it had to be correct.
Maybe you are thinking that’s taking nit-pickiness too far? On the other hand most authors accept we need to know all sorts of detail about our characters: personality traits, likes and dislikes, favourite colours, food, music. Lots of exercises have been devised to help us form well-rounded characters including lots of information we are probably never going to put in the novel – but it does lead to the people in our novels being believable. Also, no one would quibble over the necessity to do thorough research for a historical novel, so is it not as important in contemporary fiction?
So it is, I believe, with research. The author needs to know every detail, even though it may never actually appear in print. It’s the author’s confidence in her or his knowledge which brings authenticity to the work. I just wish I could make a note to look up the answer to a question later and keep writing.
I’d be interested in hearing how others approach research in contemporary novels.
Endnote: I have now checked and returned the fourth proof copy of the poetry collection. It was a bit like sending children off to school knowing it is the right thing to do but feeling very anxious about whether others will like them and be nice to them.