Research, faking it and writing what you know

Research has always been a tricky thing for me. I mean I could sit and study other people’s books and papers or even try and absorb another country or culture by going and living in it for a while, but I’m sure I’d still have the same nagging feeling inside: that’s I’m faking it a step too far.

Obviously if you only ever write about what you know, your palette is likely going to be rather limited (unless you’re one of those people that somehow seems capable of living a life big enough for at least three people). But I really hate the idea of writing so far out of your own experience that you’re actually running the risk of seriously offending, or at least misrepresenting, a certain period of time or set of people.

I accept the theory that once you write something you are inherently fictionalising it anyway, even when you don’t mean to, but I don’t think that’s enough to excuse people from ensuring accuracy when they are talking about things that are easily relatable to the real world.

For example, if writing about unethical doctors who work in Britain, you surely need some grounding of the way the healthcare system here works or the reader won’t be able to identify with the character. However, if the healthcare system, and your story, was set in an unnamed location your facts and figures could conceivably be snatched from the air without it annoying or distracting your audience too much.

The reason this has been sticking in my head is that I’m trying to write something that needs a lot of research from my end at the moment, but I keep catching myself trying to find different ways to get around making definitive statements. But if I want any kind of realism there are some things I guess I’m just going to have to try learn and make my own, even if it means faking it.

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5 responses to “Research, faking it and writing what you know

  1. Since fiction is fiction I guess on that level you can never be wrong, really, but if you’re setting stories in the real world then you’ve got to stick to real world rules. I suppose that just means doing the best you can to find out what is and stay true to it. But it seems that even people who have lived through certain experiences are subject to criticism in spite of writing “what they know”. I’m thinking of people like Monica Ali who got flamed for her stereotypical portrayal of Bangladeshi people in London despite drawing on things she knew.

    In fact, I just did a little research and think you will be interest by this (lengthy 😦 ) article by Ali herself: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/oct/13/fiction.film in particular from about a third down – starting with “The second bit of baggage to unpack comes with the label “authenticity” attached. Who is allowed to write about what? What right does a novelist have to explore any particular subject matter? Who hands out the licences?” 😛

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    • I totally remember that, I think I’ve actually even looked at that article before. But I’d forgotten all about it so thanks for the link. She asks who hands out the licenses, I can’t help thinking that the reading public basically does. It takes quite a lot to get a book banned or for its subject matter to cause controversy, but if you aren’t authentic or at least consistent your readers might wish they could revoke your license themselves.

      Maybe I should make up my own world and my own sci fi rules and them get really caught up in explaining them to everyone and make a whole new set of problems for myself! 🙂

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      • You’re right – if people believe whatever you’re saying then there’s no big ish. In any case, if you’re ever writing about a culture – and that’s writing ABOUT the culture (or religion, perhaps, or anything that’s incredibly intricate and outsiders may not necessarily be able to get all the inner details that exist) not a story where the culture is involved but not hugely so – there’ll be someone that goes rar.

        Otherwise it just fleshes out what’s actually important, which is the story… which hopefully is good enough that nobody will notice anything that’s not quite right.

        I have to write about the army =( it sucks.

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  2. Research has to come in at some point, though it need not be labor intensive. Perhaps it’s fleshing out some gaps in your memory or picking up a book. But if can be more involved such as interviewing or shadowing subjects.
    If you write a story about an unethical physician, then you need to know about the rules the doctor is violating, right? So must the reader so they can understand the severity of the violation — which of course produces tension in your story.
    I’m certain a lot of the research one does for a book doesn’t go into the manuscript, but it is more for the author to concretely convey the story.
    As for faking it, certainly in fiction you have license to stretch things. I think it comes down to authority and confidence in the writer. If the reader trusts the author then there is more flexibility and suspension of disbelief than otherwise.

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    • True true. I moan about research but to be fair I’ve done a decent amount. I just don’t really want to do the extra bit – the shadowing subjects bit. But you’re right, a good start will be getting folks to trust the ‘voice’ and also the narrators, then they’ll be less likely to go picking holes in the plot.

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