Friday, 16 December 2011

Research in fiction

I make no apologies for repeating this here after writing it on a blog which I share with four other writers who all have the same agent as myself. Generally speaking the readers of the two blogs are different but repetition is not something I usually do and be assured I do not intend to make a habit of it and bore you to tears.
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 quite 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.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011


About a fortnight ago I was invited to an 80th birthday party. You might expect this to be a place for zimmers, or at least walking sticks, but there were none in sight or in use. The hostess keeps herself fit and takes a keen interest in all the members of her extended family and this was apparent in the warmth and congeniality. She has four children and they are all married to their original partners. Considering the history of the royal family this is a record in itself, but it also adds to the harmony. Each of the four couples have three children, which adds another dozen young people to the number. All but two of them were present. The two absentees had not forgotten their well-loved granny and telephoned with their birthday greetings from South America and Australia where they are presently working. Several of the other grandchildren had brought their own partners so far from being a party of senior citizens it was youthful gathering and a very happy occasion with plenty of laughter and teasing and an atmosphere of warmth and camaraderie.
The moral of this wee story is that it adds more dimensions to life if we take an interest in the younger generations. In return many of them respect and love their elders and give their care and support when they can. This should not be expected but it is something to be treasured when it is freely given. One of my own relatives had very little interest in her three grandchildren, who were all making their way in life, and she had good reason to be proud of them. Instead she often moaned about being bored or lonely. Her circle grew smaller and her conversation became more and more limited so even her own generation were less inclined to visit.
When I write my family sagas I try to include different generations, obviously with some romance and love and a few problems to overcome – otherwise there would be no story to tell, but I I strive for the feeling of overall warmth and sometimes I even give the baddies a redeeming feature.