Posts Tagged how to use research in a novel
Comments from experts… how to use factual feedback wisely in your story (and not go mad when your plot falls apart)
For the novel I’ve just released, Ever Rest, I needed a lot of expert input. I consulted musicians, artists, doctors, priests, music lawyers, morticians… the most significant, of course, was mountaineers.
I’ve been reading about Everest, high-altitude climbing and lost climbers for more than 20 years. I also had help from my friend Peter Snell (my bookseller co-host on So You Want To Be A Writer), whose brother Robin went trekking in Nepal and sent a tireless stream of photos.
Robin sent me domestic details such as teahouse menus.
Near the end of his trip, Robin had a brief mishap that required a hospital stay. Trooper that he is, he continued to send despatches. So even the scene in a Kathmandu hospital came from actual experience.
So I was well set up to write the Nepal sequences. But my ghostwriting experience has taught me to check everything, even when sure. For this, I was lucky to find a mountaineer who has summited Everest. And despite my painstaking care, he found numerous glitches that confirm the value of actual feet on the actual mountain.
Feedback can look daunting, especially when it runs to several pages. Especially when some might seriously disrupt the book.
I got to work.
Small errors of terminology and fact
There were two ways I dealt with these.
1 – I marked the errors I should correct, lest I look like a numpty.
2 – I marked the errors I decided not to correct – these errors were made by characters who did not have specialist knowledge, and would credibly make the same mistakes as non-climber Roz. However, my expert was right and conscientious in pointing them out because he wanted to make sure I knew. If I knew, I could then decide if the character should know. Big takeaway – not all your characters will be experts.
Bigger problems that made plot sequences impossible
There were bigger problems. My expert made several suggestions for solutions, all ingenious. But none of them fitted my dramatic needs.
I looked again at my expert’s solutions. Some would be too cumbersome for the narrative. But still, something had to be done. So I analysed the reasons for my expert’s objection, went back to my reading, now with more understanding, and found solutions that were possible from real-life examples. And, as often happened, these solutions eased a few other issues.
Sometimes you have to do a lot more thinking and research… but your expert gets you there.
Sometimes I had underestimated how strongly characters would feel about events. In this case, my expert also turned out to be a sensitivity reader. And his feedback allowed me to adjust the characters’ reactions according to their natures. Some were sensitive; some could be obliviously offensive.
Points where we disagree!
What’s at the top of Everest? In my research, I found mention of an alloy pole at the summit. I liked that. I put it in. My expert commented that there wasn’t an alloy pole at the summit. I double-checked my references. In my novel, the characters climb the mountain in 1994. Two sources from 1996 mention a pole at the summit… one of them is a documentary, so I’ve seen it for myself. My expert was there in the 2010s, by which time the pole might have gone. So I could decide whether I wanted a summit pole or not. I chose to have a summit pole.
Facts… are only half of it
David Mamet said: ‘It’s not our job to explain.’ An expert will deluge you with generous details, but you as a writer, a storysmith, have to decide how to use those details – here is Mamet, explaining the difference between information and drama in loud capitals (see below)
But Roz, most readers won’t know it’s wrong! Look at the physics in The Martian…
The physics in Andy Weir’s The Martian is somewhat squiffy. Or so I’m told, because I know a lot of physics graduates. So is the physics in the movie Gravity, apparently.
Most readers and viewers don’t know; that’s true. But I will know. I don’t want to release a book that I know has inaccuracies. And knowing about them has pushed me to find better solutions that fit my dramatic needs and keep the book’s credibility and truth.
Meanwhile, here is Ever Rest. Find it in all print and ebook formats.
What’s it like? Here are a few reviews to help you decide.
If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.