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.


  1. I do agree about the problem of getting sidetracked in research,Gwen. I suppose it's all about striking the balance and getting most things correct!

  2. We can only try, Myra, but knowledge is never lost, is it.