by William Saunders
It could be said that my opinion is that of a spoiled brat. For many years I was a journalist for big city newspapers who wore an Access All Areas pass in all kinds of interesting places. So am I, with a memory bank and notebooks full of authentic detail, giving you the old “write what you know” refrain, and suggesting you set your first novel in a creative writing class? No. I’m saying authentic detail doesn’t help fiction all that much.
Apart from anything else, research is never as exciting as the idea seems. Once you are on board the fishing boat you will be in everyone’s way, which is dispiriting. Consider too that you are not the first writer to think of researching your fiction. People who work in environments where there is lots of interesting authentic detail to be garnered, forensics labs or emergency rooms, say, have grown weary of such requests, as the standard letter of refusal they send out will hint. There are unexpected hazards too. When a now established Scottish crime writer dreamed up his first fictional murder, he decided to drop by his local police station to get some advice on police procedure. Unfortunately for him, his imaginary crime was similar to a real local murder which was as yet unsolved, and he was held for several hours as a suspect. At least he garnered some authentic detail.
A ride on a fishing boat is easy to arrange, and here the problems of research begin to assert themselves. You will return from your adventure with a bulging set of field notes and the temptation to share them with your reader will be irresistible. You will want to describe every creak and shudder of the winch–and how dull it will be. In the general run of things you don’t explain what electricity is before a character walks into a room and turns on the light to reveal a dead body, do you? And your instincts are correct here, but there is nothing like a pile of authentic detail to lure you away from them.
Worse still is the temptation to dispense your authentic detail in little nuggets, to round out the character, you tell yourself, but really to show off how much you know. Your main character is an architect and when he or she glimpses a mysterious stranger across a crowded room, the way the stranger stands reminds him or her of some esoteric piece of architecture. Architects do not think like that because nobody does. I am a writer, but no stranger, mysterious or otherwise, has ever reminded me of a punctuation mark. Furthermore there is nothing like the little nugget, carelessly applied, to expose your ignorance of the subject to an actual expert.
The real difficulty research creates is far profounder than these irritations. Fiction is a collaborative process between reader and writer. When you ride on the fishing boat you will find it is very different from how you imagined it would be; that was the whole point of the expedition. When you try to recapture the actual reality in words you will cease to be a co-dreamer and become a lecturer, and your story will no longer be a story, but information. Try as the reader will to be interested, the bond between you is broken and whatever magic you had together is lost.
William Saunders is a British poet, journalist and author. His latest publication is Leah And Her Twelve Brothers. He blogs here.