Knowing it all

By Isabel Dennis-Muir

I guess anyone who writes fiction wants to make it as real as possible.  By that I mean we hope the imagination of our readers will be totally captured by the story world we create.

Alison Burnside’s article in this Authorlab blog explored character development and pointed out that even minor characters need to have a personality, an individuality.  It would be great if our readers were still thinking about the characters in our story – major and minor – long after they have turned the last page.

But as well as credible characters, our settings and plot need to be populated with accurate and absorbing detail.  If you watched the first episode of Downton Abbey you might remember that the under-butler was told to iron the newspaper that carried the headlines of the sinking of the Titanic.  It was an unusual detail, but one that immediately placed the viewer in 1912.  Throughout the six series of Downton Abbey we saw the importance of detail in creating the story world, which perhaps is what helped it to achieve such success and a whole host of awards.

So, what tools do we have in our writer’s armoury to enable us to make a reality of fiction?  With the benefit of the internet we now have billions of web pages that will give us the answer to pretty much anything.  Enter a random question into your search engine and you are bound to get thousands, if not millions, of results.

Let’s say we are writing a novel set in England in the 1960s.  To accurately create one of our scenes we might ask ‘What were summers like in the 1960s?’, which brings up almost seven million results.  Our challenge here is to sort the wheat from the chaff and select websites that provide accurate and unbiased information.  We can be canny and ensure we phrase our question a little more carefully.  By changing our question to ‘What were summers like in the south-east of England in the 1960s?’ we are down to just over a million results.  Still too many to choose from, but it is likely that the first few pages will give us more appropriate detail.  From the information you gather you may find that your characters are experiencing a summer with a drought, or by contrast they may be living near to a village that is flooded.  Do the same thing for a winter scene and your characters might find themselves sledging, or walking to work over feet of snow.

But research can be so much more than internet searches.

Ernest Hemingway tells us:

If a writer stops observing he is finished. Experience is communicated by small details intimately observed.

We need to get out there into the real world, sit quietly and watch.  What might seem an insignificant detail in an ordinary day could transform your story.

One of my favourite writers, Anita Shreve, shows how closely she has observed people in this vivid description of Kathryn, one of the main characters in her novel The Pilot’s Wife.  Kathryn is stock-taking in a book shop on a humid day in New Hampshire when she first meets the man who will go on to be her husband.

Her hair is loose and sticky on the back of her neck.  She feels as though the heat and the humidity, combined with the dust she has been kicking up, have created a kind of dirty film all over her.  In the mosaic of her reflection in an antique mirror on the wall, she catches a glimpse of soggy tendrils of hair on either side of her face, which is shiny with perspiration.  Her bra strap is showing, a white flash under the red, and there is a blue stain on the tank top from something that bled in the wash.’

It’s evident that Shreve spent time people watching.  As we read about Kathryn we can feel the heat and see the perspiration.  The detail of ‘the blue stain …from something that bled in the wash’ tells us so much about Kathryn, and is something that readers can relate to, as I am sure we have all mixed our colours with whites from time to time…

We need to speak to people.  One of the best ways to discover the realities of a particular occupation is to interview someone who does that job.  We may be able to imagine what it’s like to drive a London bus, for example, but how much do we really know about the pressures of time-keeping, the difficulties of learning the routes? A friend of mine used to be a London bus driver and he told me that he was so pleased with himself having learned all the routes, but on his first day out he realised he hadn’t learned which bus stops he had to stop at.  He just had to hope someone would jump out and wave him down!  Anecdotes like this can help to provide light and shade to your writing.  You may not have a character who is a London bus driver, but someone in your story may well catch a London bus – imagine they are on the route that fateful day when the bus didn’t stop.  It could provide an interesting twist to your story.

So much has been said about writing technique.  ‘Write what you know’ is a well-used mantra.  But if your story is set in Australia in the 1950s, then you need to back up your imagination with research.  If you are a successful and wealthy author you might be able to jump on a plane and visit your setting, but most of us have to rely on studying places from afar.   Whatever your approach, try to immerse yourself as much as possible in that place.  Think about the music of the era, the clothes that people wore, the pastimes they enjoyed.  Think about just how much leisure time they might have had.

Museums and libraries are wonderful places for gathering historical information.  Finding just the right piece of information via the internet can often depend on you asking your search engine the right question and on your ability to tease out the best answer.  But in a library you can browse through books for inspiration – you might discover something you hadn’t even considered.  Newspaper archives are treasure troves of information.  Looking at the headlines for a particular month or year can give you a flavour for what people were concerned about in that era; you may discover an event that you weren’t aware of that might influence your character.  While doing some research for my novel I discovered that a mass shooting had taken place in 1987 in Melbourne, Australia.  I don’t plan to mention it in my story, but as one of my main characters is living in Australia at that time he would have been aware of it and it might have influenced the way he felt about Australia.  It could be a useful aside in a conversation, or he may have known one of the families who were affected.

Don’t feel that you have to put all you discover into your story.  When we create our characters we might make sure we know every detail about them: what foods they like; what scares them; what age they were when they first learned to read.  But we won’t necessarily use all that detail, it just serves to enrich our character so that we know how they will respond to any given scenario.  It makes them real.  In the same way research can provide the colour for your story, even if you don’t include it.

But be careful, research can be addictive.  We can be happily preparing our draft and find that several hours have passed while we go off to look up this or that piece of information.  We return to our writing and discover that we haven’t achieved our word count for the day, or even the week.  So, remember your deadlines and bear in mind that we can’t know it all…

Have you tried any unusual approaches to researching your stories?  Have you found one approach more successful than another?  Share your thoughts by adding a comment below.

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3 thoughts on “Knowing it all

  1. I haven’t yet written a piece in an era I haven’t lived through and this blog post makes me want to do just that. I think you’re right; a simple detail about a news item can influence a story, can steer the story. It may be fun to write a story based around a simple historical fact. I might give it a go.

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