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.


I’m reading How Novels Work by John Mullan at the moment and totally enjoying having a look at some critical literature. It’s probably the first thing that isn’t straight fiction (or non fiction that have nothing to do with writing) that I’ve read in the last year and a half and it’s nice to be reminded of a bunch of conventions as well as introduced to a few that are new to me.

One section sent my mind wandering for sure, and that was the one on character. I mean, when did ‘having character’ turn into a vague, ill defined insult? back in the day, being a man of character was a seal of approval. Now it suggests that the gentleman is more likely to be boorish or lacking in charm in some way and that this character is the only excuse for such behaviour.

Character used to be an accepted public construct for everyone, and not one created by writers. Instead it was built by the individual and finely tuned to ensure that they had presented the best face to the world. Now such an idea is considered disingenuous – just look at the backlash for so called celebs who aren’t into the whole warts and all coverage so many folks are demanding.

Now character is supposed to represent the most personal, the most essential interior of someone. Not only that, but as an interior that is fixed and not malleable, asserting the idea that ‘you can do all you will for someone, but you can’t change their character.’

Everyone has a public construct though, so how can you determine which of these is their true ‘character’? The one everyone sees or the one that is hidden? And does that mean that the best fiction is the type that can create a believable balance between the two?

Waving them off

There’s a time when you expect large numbers of your social groups disappear in droves, whenever you finish a course of study or change jobs for example, but more and more I’ve been getting the feeling that a disproportionately large number of my friends are hot-footing it off around the world – or have plans to.

I guess it says something about how ambitious and creative the majority of them are, how hungry for new experiences and unafraid to chase after them they seem to be. And to be honest I have some of these plans myself, although only one that is really likely to come to fruition and even that one is only a dream that I have piggy-backed on to.

It makes me feel a little bad when I think of how few and far between my urges to travel are. It might be true that I love the place I live with plenty of good reason – Edinburgh is a beautiful place after all – but everyone knows familiarity breeds contempt and stagnation. Should I be following my adventurous friends? Should I be taking their actions as a working example rather than another reason for me to pout and moan about them making themselves inaccessible for some of the pleasures of friendship?

Travel broadens the mind, so I often think I should do it even if only to add breadth to stories and imagined worlds, but conversely I wonder whether it’s exactly this frequent taxing of the imagination – whether when reading or writing – that makes the need to physically change my surroundings less of a prerogative.

Wrung through

I’m no good at this either: I’m strung thin, wrung out and wondering what to say. I noose you with loose meaning, scared to pin down my scheming because you don’t want to know what I think of what we don’t want to think about.

If I could be better I would and I’d do what I could not to cry when we are wound up in thoughts we try to share but don’t dare to explain because we know how they wound and we don’t want to do it again.

Writing about writing all the time

I would have thought that, what with writing for pretty much the whole of my working day and then scribbling away earnestly in the evening, that the last thing I’d want to do is find another typing task for myself. But between the two very different types of writing I engage in on a day to day basis, there languishes a whole flood of words unsaid.

In the guise of copywriter many personal opinions have to be kept in check and I’ve found, kind of surprisingly (to me anyway), that that’s often the case when writing fiction too. I don’t want characters that take on all my bugbears; I want to create new ones for them!

But if that’s the case what am I meant to do with it all? Where are all the words to go? I needed to find a home for the rants – from diatribes about the news stories that make me want to smash my head against my desk to the more personal rejection-rants that remind me that my talents and opinions are as limited as they are. So here’s the new home, hopefully all the angry and previously unreleased words will be very happy here.