Fiction isn’t all made up: researching the facts and knowing how to use them #writing #amwriting #fiction #books

Photo by David Travis on Unsplash

Research is vital – even when making stuff up

In my post a couple of weeks ago I shared where I get my ideas for my novels from and how my characters and their stories come to me. Then last week I wrote about how tricky it can be to come up with a fictional location even when the book is contemporary and set in the real world. In today’s post I’m sharing some of the research I’ve had to when writing my novels.

Not all down to imagination

Yes, fiction is, by definition, made up. The characters aren’t real people, the story is invented, and the settings maybe don’t actually exist. But writing a made-up story isn’t solely imaginative.

In order to flesh out the characters – their lives and the places they live – lots of credible details have to be included. Details such as jobs, workplaces, hobbies, lifestyles, health issues and politics – to name only a few. And that’s where research is essential.

Life experience isn’t enough

As an author, I can, of course, draw on my own life experience and fictionalise events etc. But this can only get me so far. It would all get rather dull rather quickly if everything was just a variation on the theme of me.  So I have to research all sorts of stuff to give my novels credibility and interest.

Below are just some of the areas I’ve had to explore. And some of it probably makes for an ‘interesting’ internet research history …

Things I needed to research

For my first novel Change of Life, although I shared the profession of primary school teacher with Rosie and had, like her, had a cancer diagnosis, I knew nothing about the profession of her husband Tom. So I had to a fair bit of research on the work of a heart surgeon. Other areas I had to investigate for that first story included adoption, drug addiction and the life of a photo-journalist.

When I wrote my (to date) only children’s novel The Silver Locket, I had, amongst other things, to check up on the historical details of the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

But the amount of research requiring to be done ramped up significantly when I was writing my Skye series.

For Displacement, although, like my main characters, I lived in crofting township on the Scottish island of Skye, I wasn’t working on a croft (in case you don’t know, a croft is a small subsistence farm common in parts of the Scottish Highlands and Islands). So I had to research various types of animal husbandry and how crofting works. I also had to research the organisation and ways of working of Police Scotland, the job of a children’s book illustrator, possible complications of pregnancy and the current political situation in the Middle East.

When I was writing Settlement, the second book in the series, I had to look into organised crime, gunshot wounds and how to treat them, as well as the likelihood of surviving a bullet in the chest. The finer points of producing watercolour and oil paintings was another area I had to investigate. And I also had to update my knowledge of both Police Scotland and the work of those on all sides who are working for peace and justice in Israel-Palestine.

Then for my latest book, Fulfilment – the third and final part of the Skye series, to be published next month – there was yet more research to be done. This time it included the use of polytunnels to grow fruit and vegetables, the use of quad bikes on hill farms, the adaptation of quad bikes to hand controls only, how to photograph the night sky, advanced sheep care, PTSD – its nature and treatment, the health implications for those who use a prosthetic leg following amputation, and the work of various social enterprises and charities.

And, as I say, the above list of topics contains just some of the stuff I’ve had to research in the course of my writing.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

But all this investigation of a wide range of topics doesn’t make me an expert in any of them. I hope I’ve done enough to add to the interest, credibility and level of entertainment that I hope my books contain. However, I can’t perform heart surgery, provide mental health therapy, deliver a lamb or treat a sick sheep. Neither can I paint beautiful pictures or photograph the Milky Way. I don’t need to do any of those things, I just have to know enough to convince my readers that my characters can do them.

The perils of research for an author

The downside of doing lots of research as an author is the temptation to justify the time spent doing it by including way too much of it in the story. So it’s a bit of a balancing act when deciding what to include and what to leave out. I know I have to be ruthless and only include what enhances the story or risk boring my readers with a load of irrelevant detail.

Disclaimer

I apologise now if I’ve made any factual errors in spite of my research and constant fact-checking. Any mistakes are most definitely mine and not those of the real experts I asked – or indeed of Mr Google. So don’t treat any of my novels as manuals 😊

I don’t profess to be an expert in everything included in my novels. But I do hope my research has been good enough. Thank you to everyone who has personally and patiently shared their true expertise with me. Respect to you all. I hope I’ve used my research appropriately and understood and interpreted correctly.

But, most of all, I do believe that the time I’ve devoted to my research has been well spent – and that my stories are better for it.

Writing Fiction: Made Up Places

In my last post I wrote about five favourite real-life places that have featured in my books. So in this one I thought I’d share some other places that feature in my fiction but that are entirely made-up.

Now, you might be wondering why I felt the need to invent places. After all, my books are contemporary fiction and are set in real geographical locations with plenty of actual distinctive and exciting settings to choose from. Even my children’s book with its historical and fantasy elements is based in the real world settings of Edinburgh and the north of Scotland.

There are various reasons why I invented some additional settings as well as making full use of the real ones. Some were practical and some were just part of the fun of using my imagination. After all as an author I get to enjoy making up characters and their stories, so why not add in some pretend places too.

Imagined Houses

One of my favourite sorts of places to invent is a character’s home.

The house I created for Caitlin in my children’s novel The Silver Locket was based on a real house. Caitlin lives in Edinburgh with her father and her siblings in a large Victorian villa. And the house I used as a starting point was the one my piano teacher lived in – a house I visited regularly as a child. Another house familiar to me from childhood was the seaside one where one of my friends lived and this gave me a starting point for Rosie’s house in Change of Life.

For both Rachel and Jack in Displacement and its sequel Settlement I spent a fair bit of time creating their houses.

Jack’s house is a former croft house and although it’s over a hundred years old, he renovates, modernises and extends it. One of the outcomes of the work he puts in is lots of large windows that make the most of the light and the views. He also knocks down interior walls to make larger more open rooms.

Rachel’s cottage is on a working croft. It too is over a hundred years old. It’s the house she grew up in and has not had any recent modernisation work done to it.

For Jack’s house especially I trawled through magazines such as Ideal Homes and House Beautiful to get ideas. I also based some of the exteriors and interiors on actual houses including ones I’d lived in myself.

Once I had some starting point pictures in my head I then drew out the floor plans for the houses. I put in as much detail as possible – including the location of doors, windows and stairs as well as the layout of the furniture. I also made a note of the direction in which the houses faced and what could be seen from the windows. And these plans were important – not because I intended to include every detail of these dwellings in their respective novels – but in order to maintain clarity for myself when I imagined my characters moving around in these spaces. But not only that, it was also in order to maintain consistency for my readers who I hoped would be able to imagine these spaces for themselves.

Imagined Streets, Villages and Towns

Almost all the outdoor settings I’ve used so far in my novels are real. The walks taken by the characters, the towns and cities and villages they live in exist – even if their actual address doesn’t.

But I did make up one place and that is Halladale the crofting township where Displacement‘s (and its follow-up books) Jack and Rachel live on the real Isle of Skye. I located Halladale on the (real) Waternish peninsula at the northern end of the island but I decided to go for a made up community. The reason I did so was to give me freedom to lay it out as I chose to for the purposes of the story – and also so that nobody in the relatively small island community could possibly mistake it for their township or their house.

However, having opted for this made-up location meant that once again I had to some detailed drawing to do. After all I couldn’t have a character’s house facing the loch on one page and then have it turning through 180 degrees to face the hill a few pages later. So the whole township was committed to paper and stuck up on the wall.

Freedom to Create

I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed making up all those places. The houses in particular were great fun to do.

And that’s part of the joy of being a writer – having the freedom to just make things up – people, stories and places.

If you’re a writer do you use real locations in your writing? As a reader do you prefer real world settings or made-up ones – or a bit of a mixture?

Writing Fiction: The how, the what, and the why of what works for me

It’s all about the story…

New Change of Life Cover SMALL AVATAR

Displacement Cover SMALL AVATAR    The Silver Locket Cover SMALL AVATAR

When I start writing a novel, I’m not sure where the story is going to lead. But, as an author of both adult and children’s fiction, I do at least know which audience the novel is aimed at. Other than that, once the seed is planted, I wait to see what grows.

I don’t tend to plan in great detail. I have a rough outline that develops as I go and I usually have some key points or scenes or turning points that I’m aiming for. And I don’t always have an ending in mind, preferring it to, in the words of author, Rose Tremain, ‘be earned by all that will go before it’. It’s not till the redrafting stage that I check it all out for rhythm, relevance and cohesion.

So how do I work when creating a novel? What is the process I follow? Why do I write what I write?

It usually begins with a character.

Rosie in Change of Life first presented herself to me when I was wrote a short story for a competition. The story didn’t win any prizes, but Rosie stayed with me. However, it wasn’t until the writer, Ali Smith, who was the tutor on an Arvon Foundation residential course that I attended, said that the short story had a novel in it trying to get out that I dared to take Rosie further.

Rachel in Displacement came to me when I was in the garden hanging out washing. I paused to look out over the croft and the loch beyond and there she was––not in a hallucination or anything––but in my head, in my ear telling a bit of her story.

But Caitlin in The Silver Locket wasn’t my original inspiration. She came after the setting and plot popped into my head. I was still working as a primary school teacher at the time and was on a visit to The Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre along with a class of Primary Six pupils. They’d been learning all about the Jacobites and Bonnie Prince Charlie in class, hence the visit. We were out on the battlefield re-enacting, with great relish, the Jacobite charge at the Redcoat army. And the idea came to me: what if time slipped and we were suddenly transported back to 1746 and the actual battle? It was a short step from there to children’s adventure story and Caitlin and her two friends soon made themselves known.

And the characters lead me to issues.

It’s the issues the characters are facing that give the story its heart. The plot arises out of how the characters deal with the issues facing them and it’s from those issues that the themes in my novels appear.

Now, I recently did a post on the role and use of themes in fiction generally and in my own writing in particular. And in that post I explored the notion that literary fiction is driven by themes whereas commercial fiction relies more on character, plot and setting. I came to the conclusion that the divide between the two sides of fiction is often an artificial one.

I don’t write literary fiction, at least I don’t think I do, but I can’t seem to avoid themes any more than I can avoid using characters.

For example, in Change of Life the issues faced by Rosie include her having breast cancer and suspecting her husband has been unfaithful. This meant the book dealt with the themes of one’s own mortality, and of marital love and trust. In Displacement issues faced by the characters include the disorientating and devastating loss of a soldier son, the loss of one’s sense of purpose and place in the world, the end of a long career, and falling in love in later life. This led to the themes of politics, war and the displacement of people being explored, along with those of love, bereavement and the significance of home. And even in my children’s book, The Silver Locket, there were themes, those of loyalty, bravery and self-reliance.

And then there is the question of setting.

In my first novel, the setting of the city of Edinburgh and its neighbouring area of East Lothian, wasn’t crucial or significant to the action, but my characters had to live somewhere. And so I chose the place I was born and lived in for most of my life up to that point.

Setting was, however, crucial in Displacement. By the time I came to write it I’d moved north to the highlands of Scotland. The character of Rachel presented herself as a native of the Isle of Skye. Not only that though, she was also the daughter of a German Jew who’d arrived in Scotland as a child refugee just before the Second World War. I’d recently watched a TV documentary on the Kindertransport when this part of Rachel’s biography came to me. And, having Rachel’s story take place both in her island home and during her visit to Israel to explore her heritage, allowed me to explore and describe two settings I know well. They were also ideal places in which to deal with the themes of displacement, oppression and cultural destruction as they all loom large in Scottish history and of course persist in the Middle East today.

And of course in The Silver Locket the setting was also crucial. There would have been no story for the three young friends without the time travel that took them back to the setting of eighteenth-century Scotland. The setting allowed them to escape their everyday twenty-first century lives, escape their parents and grow in independence and confidence. It allowed them to have their adventure.

And what of the plot?

So, I take all these ingredients and I just crack on. I go to the desk and I mix and remix them till they hold together in a coherent mass. The characters, their situations and their issues all come together and I make a story.

But why?

Why do I write what I write? I can’t help myself. I write what I’ve got to write. I write about what’s important to me. I write the sort of books I want to read.

In my adult fiction, I address the lives of real, middle-aged contemporary women. I address the realities of reaching fifty or sixty years old, the realities of maintaining a long-term marriage, or of starting a new relationship or a new career, of coping with bereavement and one’s own mortality.

Yes, there’s romance in my novels, but it’s tinged with the realism of experience. Happy ever after is just a phase; the real work starts after that––and this is central to the novel I’m working on at the moment which is the sequel to Displacement. And I like to present the positive sides to being older and a bit wiser, to include the new possibilities and opportunities that go with ageing.

And I also like the stories I write (and read) to move beyond ‘the village’ of much contemporary fiction and to travel from the personal to its links with the universal. And if all that involves the big themes, borders on the literary, and makes categorising my books difficult, so be it.

Because in the end, whether the writing is for adults or children, and whether as writer or reader, all that really counts for me is, is it a good story?

 

Just Do It 2 – starting to write character

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Just Do It…

Character

This is the second in
a short series of posts designed to help people just starting out as writers of
fiction. I don’t claim to be an expert professional but just want to share my
take on the process as a sort of expert novice.

So, you’ve started. You’ve overcome the procrastination and
excuses and you’ve begun to write. You have an idea for a story and are ready
to write a piece of fiction. All you need to do now is to come up with
convincing and engaging characters, a coherent plot, an interesting setting and
an appropriate tone and mood – and, of course, you’ll require a suitable
narrative voice.

In this post I’m going to take a look at the character
element of storywriting.

While it’s true that
some genres such as spy thrillers are more plot than character driven, it’s my
belief that all novels are enhanced by having well drawn characters. In the
crime writing genre, Kate Atkinson’s Jackson
Brodie
, Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Susan
Hill’s Simon Serailler,  are as much a part of the readers’ enjoyment
as the whodunit plots.

It’s likely that you’ll have more than one character in your
novel. You’ll have a main character, or characters, and probably a supporting
cast as well. There’s a sort of ‘classic’ cast list for novels consisting of the
hero, or main character, and the anti-hero, who is often another main character
and  plays off against the hero, (but not
necessarily in a detrimental or villainous
way). Then there is the  hero’s
helper, who offers love and support, the hero’s champion ,who offers practical
help, the wise elder, who offers knowledge and insight and the joker (who
provides some light relief).

These roles shouldn’t be viewed as having a rigid
demarcation. I offer them as a guideline only. Good authors keep the boundaries
fluid and sometimes assign roles against archetype or stereotype. For example
it might be a child character that has most of the wisdom and insight. You
certainly don’t have to have all the characters on the list and one character
can fill several roles.

But whoever you decide to include, it’s important to get to
know your main character(s) – more than that, you must get inside their heads.
I’ve even heard the process described as falling in love with your character(s).
That doesn’t mean they have to be loveable or even particularly likeable but
there must be chemistry between author and character. If you, as the writer,
aren’t fascinated by your characters, you can’t expect your readers to engage
with them either. The nearest analogy I can come up with to describe the
author/character relationship is that of a method actor with their role. While
you write you are that character, you
experience their emotions and their actions.

So it will be helpful for you to know as much as possible
about your character(s). You should compile a biography for them which includes
age, looks, job (and job-related skills), nationality, family background,
politics, personal qualities/faults, tics such as speech patterns and so on. Give
them a house (what do they see when they wake up in the morning/from the
kitchen window and so on), a journey to work and/or to the shops etc. This list
isn’t exhaustive and you should add on any other category relevant to your
purposes.

Going through this ‘interview’ process with a character will
allow you to build their backstory and this will lend credibility and
authenticity to their motivation and behaviour. You won’t necessarily include
all the backstory and every little biographical detail, but it’s important to
have them worked out in your own mind.

And finally the main character(s) needs to change during the
course of the novel. They must move from being stuck to unstuck, or from
lacking something – an emotion, a relationship, an understanding, a solution –
to gaining it. You are going to take your character(s) on their unique journey.

The map for the journey will be the basis of the plot. And
in the next ‘Just Do It’ post, I’ll offer some tips on plotting.