Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Monday, 9 July 2012

Making it authentic – the need for research


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.

12 comments:

  1. Thanks to the Internet, most of these details are at our "finger tips". No need to make those long trips to the British Library India Collections!

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    1. Very true, Wally, but there is a need to double, if not triple, check information on the internet as it can be so very wrong. Years ago when my son was doing a school project he looked up a website about pandas and told me they were first 'discovered' in 1956! I suggested he check a few more sites before believing that!

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  2. Congratulations in sending off your poetry collection, Mary. I hope it does well.
    Re the research - while I agree writers must not let their story get bogged down with it I do like to learn a few new facts even while I am reading fiction and it gives the reader confidence if he/she senses the writer is well informed. Unless it is something vital to the plot and subsequent passages I usually write a note in bold italics re the fact I want to check, but all writers have their own method.

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    1. Gwen, yes I knew you were one of those lucky writers who can make a note and carry on writing - wish I could do the same. I just sort of grind to a halt until I have checked.
      Thanks for your congratulations on the poetry collection - I'm becoming quite excited about it now.

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  3. If I stopped to do the research,I doubt if I would start again!I'm a 'make a note in the margin' writer.

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  4. I wish I was, Myra. I think this is why I find it so difficult to get on with the biography I want to write - it's not possible until I've finished the research.

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  5. I'm a 'highlight in red' person, Mary. There's something really satisfying about changing the red to black once I've done the research - later.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Joan. I'm clearly going to have to undertake training in moving on and finding out later!

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  6. I'm afraid I'm a 'stop and find out now' writer. Yes, it holds up the flow, but sometimes research can help you in unexpected ways too.

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    1. Oh, Jenny, I'm glad to hear from you - was beginning to think I was alone in my need to find out before moving on. And, you're right about how research can help in ways you don't expect. So pleased there's someone else out there who has to stop and find out.

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  7. I like to get the story down then do the embroidery as it were. But we can all take heed of something P D James said about research; she once had a motorbike in one of her books going into reverse - editor didn't pick it up either! While I know (because I have a motorcyclist husband) there are some motorbikes that can reverse they are those huge armchair-on-wheels things the Americans like and not the one PDJ was writing about...:)

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    1. Love the PD James story, Linda.
      As for those huge armchair motorbikes - well, I've never really seent the point of them. The owner might as well put a cover over the top and call it a car.

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