Posts Tagged research for a novel
I’ve had this question from M:
I’m writing a historical novel set in Australia in 1872. The fictional events are based on real events or phenomena. A few characters are based on real people, who I’ve researched. One is Thursday October Christian the second, grandson of Fletcher Christian, of the Bounty Mutiny fame. During his life he held positions of responsibility on Pitcairn Island. He is making a cameo appearance, greeting characters as they arrive in a ship.
My problem is this. There is very little information on him, so I am wondering how to describe him. There is information on his father, who was a colourful character, so I would like to model TOC 2nd on him. But what would you do?
No matter what you write, there’s one thing you must assume. Whatever you fudge, whatever you’re inaccurate about, will be found out.
Partly this is sod’s law. Your book will find the one reader who knows this obscure thing. But actually, it’s more than that. If you’re writing about a particular time, or a particular geographical place, or a particular exciting profession, you’ll attract readers who love that special story world. They’ll be geeks for it. If they spot something inaccurate, they might shrug and forgive you – or they might lose confidence in you altogether.
So even though we’re making things up, we have to be as respectful of reality as possible.
Also, we need to be careful about sources. Wiki is a good start, but it’s not necessarily the oracle. Double-check anything you find there. You might even have to be wary of experts. I’ve just seen a post on Facebook from a writer friend who’s researching Jane Austen’s plotting methods. She says: ‘A historian states something I know to be wrong, but it’s so often repeated that it’s now taken as fact.’
I know. That way madness lies.
But when, like M, you’ve done all the research possible and haven’t found what you need, what are your options? How many liberties can you take?
M is caught in a classic historical fiction conundrum: how strictly should she stick to the facts if she’s fictionalising?
First, is there a danger of libel? Not in M’s case. She’d like to use TOC 2nd because of the historical timing, and model his personality on his father, who seems interesting and memorable for readers. Both guys are long dead, so there’s no legal repercussion. And it sounds like the portrayal would be harmless and even a bit flattering.
How big is their role?
More importantly, this character’s role is incidental. You’d need to worry more if he had a more major role – and if he did, you’d probably find it easier to invent your own character so they can do all the things you need them to do – and speak as you need them to. But in M’s case, there’s probably little harm in splicing the personality of one TOC to the personage of the other. But M knows it’s not accurate.
More research you can do
That’s where I’d do some more research. Find out how much these particular facts matter.
How protective are historians about fictional portrayals of this character? How protective are his actual descendants or his cheerleaders who are alive today? (You’d be surprised who has cheerleaders, at least in the UK. Go to any tiny town and you’ll find there’s a local historical celebrity who invented pencil lead or washing powder.) I’d look for past instances where a portrayal of this guy might have rubbed people wrong.
It’s the same principle for writing stories about issues and cultures beyond our own lived experience. We might use sensitivity readers or specialist beta readers to ensure we’re accurate, authentic and respectful. So look for common misrepresentations and misconceptions.
You might find there are things you simply can’t do. Perhaps because of facts you’ve found. Perhaps out of good manners. Whatever you have to change, it’s not a setback. Constraints often give us much better ideas because they force us to be more inventive. I learned this while ghostwriting – many dead ends eventually became surprising breakthroughs. You might even find that a trivial moment becomes a pivotal character scene.
Not a setback after all
For instance, if M finds she must make her TOC bland and colourless, she could use her own disappointment. She could transfer the anticlimax to some of the characters and have them discuss their expectations. (‘Really? He was descended from Fletcher Christian? I hardly noticed him.’) Choose some characters who need to show their colours in some way – with a humorous bonding moment, or a falling-out (‘I hate the way you’re so judgemental’), or some other moment that drives the narrative onwards. Something new might develop because they talk about this. A straw might break a camel’s back.
You have remained accurate – and you’ve also found a way to advance the plot or character development. (Big hint: if the incident doesn’t drive the narrative onwards in some way, it shouldn’t be in the book at all. Maybe that’s the revelation – you needed to learn it isn’t interesting enough.)
On the other hand, you might find no problems with your plan. The chances are you’re safe to discreetly invent whatever feels true to the situation. If you feel the need to clarify, you could include an afternote that explains your sources and any assumptions you’ve made.
Also, remember that you’re writing fiction. The reader expects fiction; if you’re hamstrung by history and reality, they expect you to find ingenious ways around it. That’s what you do; you make it up while being faithful to what’s known. It’s what fiction writers of all hues do – we write convincing stories with a combination of research, empathy, respect and understanding of human nature.
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.
Ghostwriting, writer’s block, researching a novel … and training a horse. Interview at @officialSNWfest
How do I tackle writer’s block? How much research do I do before I start writing – and what kind of information do I look for? What’s the hardest thing about writing and what is the most joyful? And… what’s it like to write books for other people as a professional ghostwriter?
On Sunday 25th April I’m presenting a session on ghostwriting at the Surrey New Writers Festival (you don’t have to be in Surrey to attend.. we are Zooming!). So here I am on their blog, talking about how I work, how I keep working when it isn’t necessarily easy, and other strategies for a productive author life. Oh, and they asked about a little horse. Do come over.
Meanwhile, if you’d like more concentrated writing advice, I’m teaching the second part of my self-editing masterclass at Jane Friedman’s next Thursday. It’s all available as videos and transcripts if you can’t make the live broadcast. Find it here.
You might also like my Nail Your Novel books.
If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.
You’d think a writer would have the best excuse to read all the time – an unrestricted diet of anything and everything. But I find my relationship with books is somewhat complicated.
Like everyone, I have a stack of titles I’m eager to read – and never get to them unless I declare a special read-what-I-like holiday. Otherwise, my reading is on a permanent specialised regime.
A book in progress can be very fussy about what it’s fed, like an athlete.
I’ve identified that this regime has several phases.
Research – complicated but not really
I love factual research. Perhaps it’s a hangover from my ghostwriting days. Research was essential to the job, but also innately rewarding. Exciting ideas always came from these new territories of experience. Research was also darn good discipline because my editors were fearsome. If you know you’ll have to defend your plot decisions, you’re careful to check your facts. And you can never do enough swotting, so no time for ‘fun’ reading.
Don’t ask me about any of those subjects now, BTW. I could no more recall that detailed knowledge than I could now pass chemistry A level, though I once did that too.
Fiction for research – getting more complicated
Fiction is also research. In Nail Your Novel I talk about getting inspiration from fiction as a conversation with what other writers have done, perhaps to be more like them, or more unlike them. But here, danger lies. A satisfying novel can be disruptive when your own, by comparison, is primeval soup.
Disruption is one of the dangers of reading. When you’re a writer, you rarely enjoy a book for its own merits.
Interlude, where I don my editor hat
Now don’t for a moment think I’m warning you off reading. I see too many manuscripts written with little feel for the way prose works – problems the writer could solve in a thrice if they read books regularly. To write prose, you must love reading it.
This is not complicated.
Reading while editing – really quite complicated now
With my current novel Ever Rest, the plot, characters and themes are secure. It’s also secure in a bigger sense; I know what the book is. I’m eager to read fresh things and I’m eyeing that wishlist. But I’m now editing for nuance and I find I’m even more wary of disruption. I don’t know how another novel might rearrange my thinking, and right now that isn’t helpful.
I seem to be safe with books of criticism. I’ve been reading Faulks on Fiction by Sebastian Faulks. Great stories discussed but not experienced; behind a safety curtain.
I also seem to be safe if I reread novels I enjoyed a while ago. I get caught up, but I have a degree of immunity to their deepest surprises. I have already been changed by them and won’t be changed again.
Isn’t that a terrible way to use books? Perhaps to stop enjoying reading, you should be a writer.
Narrative non-fiction is working for me too. I loved Skyfaring: A Journey With a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker. It filled the sails but did not ruffle the book I was writing. The same with Do No Harm by brain surgeon Henry Marsh, which I’m currently reading.
It’s as if I’m reading to avoid inspiration, creating a controlled environment while my book does what it must.
Isn’t that crazy? Or do you do that too?
PS You can find Nail Your Novel here
Meanwhile, tell me: What do you read while you write? Do you have strange rules?
Some novels take their time, especially those of a literary hue. We might need to quarry vast amounts of possibilities and storyways, find the book’s particular character, discover what a stubborn idea wants to be. (Here’s a post about it – What takes literary writers so long.)
With all that exploring and uncertainty, it can feel like we’re getting nowhere. Then something will suddenly reveal that we actually have more substance than we suspected. It’s happened to me a few times recently with Ever Rest, so I thought I’d share them here.
1 Conduct a research interview
A few months ago I needed input on the story, so I chatted up an expert and told him the story, from start to finish, checking every development and assumption. As I’d hoped, this clarified vital questions and generated ideas, but I also realised it marked a milestone. This was the first time I’d presented the plot or characters to another living soul, and I found I had a more solid story than I suspected.
2 The like/don’t-like list
Often, when reading through a draft, I notice a lot of wrong notes. So I decided a trouble named was a trouble nailed, and I made two lists. In one, I put the negatives – mostly scenes that pulled the story in a direction that didn’t interest me. On the other list, I wrote all the things I was happy to find – an elegiac mood, a character’s disturbing personality, an atmosphere of guilt and blame.
(It’s similar to a plotting exercise I developed for Nail Your Novel – the wish-not list. If you’re stuck, write down all the developments you don’t want. They’re usually stopping you from finding the ones you do.)
As with the research interview, my lists were a revelation. I’d been too worried by the negatives, which made me feel the whole book was awry. But these lists demonstrated there was plenty on the positive side. Most of the book is heading in the right direction. And the other problems can be stared down.
3 Write a synopsis
This week, I have an opportunity to submit a few chapters of Ever Rest to a literary agent. I hate showing works in progress, but I have a few chapters that I don’t mind revealing in confidence. The bigger problem is this – the agent also wants a synopsis. Like most authors, I loathe writing synopses, but I gritted my teeth and typed. Again, it was a pleasant surprise. I found it a good exercise to present the novel’s main spine in condensed form and I even found I was filling some gaps. I’ve written before about how revision is often a process of understanding as much as of rewriting – aka revision is re-vision.
Psst… the wish-not list is one of the tools in Nail Your Novel
Thanks for the pic El Guanche – originally posted to Flickr as Arbol de Piedra, CC BY 2.0
Over to you. Have you any tips for measuring progress on a slow-burn book, especially if they’ve caught you by surprise? Oh – and wish me luck with the agent.