Monday, 9 October 2017

To Research Or Not To Research, That Is The Question...

I once saw an interview with a famous crime author whose main character was a Chief Inspector. The interviewer asked if she’d had to do much research into police procedures in order to write her stories. The author – now an elderly woman – smiled with a glint and said, ‘No, not at all. I made it all up. It’s fiction.’

Well how marvellous is that? How creatively freeing for the writer is that? The author – who I can’t name because I can’t find the quote online, I’ve probably paraphrased it a bit, and I don’t want to get sued – reminds us that fiction is fiction. If it isn’t exactly right, it doesn’t really matter. Does it?

Last week I wrote about the ethical questions surrounding writing about a culture of which you don’t belong. And it seems that this is when it does matter, when it absolutely has to be right. Fiction is fiction, but misrepresenting the shared experiences of others, feels wrong. Whenever cultural appropriation comes up in conversation (like all the time, round my gaff) the only way it ever gets accepted is when the research is rigorous and the writing excellent. Rigorous research – that is what I have realised I need.

This is the place I
picture for my rural setting
Shap, in Cumbria.
For those who do not rote-learn these posts every week, let me remind you. I am currently in the middle of the first draft of my next book. It is a novel aimed at pre-teens, about a year in the life of an eleven year old girl. All nice and relatable so far. I’ve been eleven. I’ve been a girl too, so I can write those experiences with insight and wisdom. However, this is not autobiographical. When it comes to starting high school, this character attends a school very different from the one I did. After a house move, she is thrust into a rural community and attends a tiny school in the middle of nowhere. The culture shock of this informs her struggle to make friends and see the positives in her new situation.

OK, so what? Well here’s the thing. I'm well into this story. I have happily typed away, committing all kinds of fictional descriptions of her school to paper. It's got ten pupils, it takes place in one room in the village and the Year 7s are mixed in with the GCSE students. I've waffled on, all the while keeping my famous crime author's words in my head – It’s fiction! I’m making it up! – and proceeding with little thought for the reality. But then. Then... 

I was at a friend’s 40th recently when I got chatting to one of his mates. I’ve met him before, and knew he grew up in a rural community. I also vaguely remembered, from the last drunken convo I’d had with him years ago, that he’d been in a class of about four children when he was at school. I told him all about my book and the high school I’d made up.

My notes. They don't
depict the conversation
in any way. Or
any conversation
for that matter.
Yeah. So that’s when he told me. Apparently it’s the primary schools that are tiny. Secondary schools are mostly secondary school sized. I listened to him chat as the ‘No matter! It’s fiction!’ mentality gradually drained away. He was a real person who had lived in the same sort of place I was trying to depict. A place I’d never lived. Despite us both being bladdered, he spent the next half hour talking about life in rural Cumbria. I made some notes on my phone (mostly indecipherable the next day - see what you think) but something clicked. I needed to find out this stuff for real and to do it justice. Rigorous research and excellent writing. My new mantra.

Today I spent a chunk of time googling secondary schools. I needed to find out facts to inform my fictional setting. I will still make stuff up, (obvs) but knowing the truth will make the fiction that much better. I found a school – pretty small for a secondary – in the same sort of location as my book is set - so I’ve emailed them with a few questions. Knowing school office managers as I do, this will be met with a loud ‘WTAF?’ and a vigorous eye roll. (They really are busy people!) Hopefully someone will take pity on me and give me the insight I need. For now, I’ll keep my new mantra of 'rigorous research' in my head, and leave the ‘don’t worry, it’s fiction, any old shite will do!’ one alone for a bit.

Have a lovely week, folks.

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