Dear all, I have spent the day ill in bed, I thought I was picking up but overnight the cold came back with a vengeance. Before I give you my address to send over all your flowers, chocolates and death threats to stop writing I thought I would talk about using real life events in fiction. The reason this came to mind is that in between bouts of sleep and taking paracetamol I have been watching news channels such as the BBC and CNN most of the day.
Without going into any political discussions here it goes without saying the Ukraine situation has taken the largest chunk of the coverage along with the Oscar Pistorius trial and whatever your views I want to relate it to fiction writing. I don’t want to trivialize them because they don’t affect me, it is just that this is a blog on my views on writing and I don’t want to sound as if I am an expert on these issues when I am not, and that is exactly the point of this post.
I am interested in writing fiction that has in the main, a contemporary setting and today has made me think about how I go about incorporating real events and the implications of doing so.
The first question I have is how do I select the events to use? This will in part be answered by the development of the story and the direction it may take, but before I get on to that choice being made for me by the characters I create, there will also no doubt be a decision I as the writer, or by default the narrator I chose, makes. You see, for example, if I have contemporary London as the background to a story, there is only so much I can fit into to the descriptions of every day life, I can’t repeat every news story, every cultural event, every law, every court case, every sports event and so on, just as I can’t use every historical event that has ever happened to show why and how the current setting is the way it is. I have to choose and the process by which I do that I am not sure about. Sorry to keep using London but it’s my home and very likely the setting for a lot of my stories to come so I have to examine that. It is a city of over 8 million people, how do I select which cultures to involve, which religions, which institutions, which buildings, etc.?
If I am writing a story that has 2014 as part of its time frame is it my duty to include the Ukraine crisis because that is such a huge story I cannot pretend it isn’t happening even if it has nothing to do whatsoever with my story, but as a backdrop it is something that would look ridiculous by its omission? The thing is, I may think it is a huge story but I bet there are people that couldn’t give a flying fig about it and may not be paying attention at all. Then again, I could use that excuse for any topic! How do I actually know?
What level of research do I need to do before I feel qualified to involve a real life event and then what level of responsibility do I have to justify what I say? Do I have free reign to make up whatever the hell I like? Can I change things? For instance, can I use a real event but then fictionalize parts to suit my needs? I’m not talking about a general ‘rule’ for fiction writing, there are no doubts legal implications that any writer and publisher would need to know and work to concerning all sorts of issues that are simply not up for discussion. We all know about famous examples of the right to free speech and where this line may vary country to country, also the difference between creating fictional drama and purposefully using fiction to portray racism, homophobia, etc. I don’t want to discuss that here as I am not qualified to and it’s not really the subject I am interested in, that is something to take up another time, this is just a general point about the limits I feel I have, or rather, the limits I want to set myself for my particular type or style of writing.
What I am really interested in is character development. How do I build a character up by including background information that is relevant to my story but also based in reality? I guess one way of looking at it is how do I not hide behind a character by being selective in what I use? If I am to create interesting individuals that are believable they cannot just be different facets of my own personality, so the things I watch and read and learn about will be different with multiple characters. What research is needed to find and create other truthful characters with varying beliefs, interests, jobs, families and so on? It’s a twist on the character development issues I have spoken about before and remember studying about in my degree.
For instance, depending on what time of the day and what channel I caught the news, I may have heard and seen different interviews, different guest speakers, different recorded clips, different angles or views…all of that may or may not go into my characters, what level of research is needed before I think I am happy to go ahead with it? You have the usual research, books and reference libraries, Internet searching and research papers, etc. but do I need to go even further? Do I need to interview people from both sides of an argument? To go further on the above point, I could have sat glued in front of the television all day and purchased every single newspaper and feel as well informed as possible…but still only from the western viewpoint in what was available to me. I wouldn’t have been able to watch any Russian television, Russian news, Russian newspapers and so if for arguments sake I had an everyday normal Russian character in my story how would I know what they would have been told compared to a Ukrainian…or an American…and so on, I can’t use my information to build that character up because in reality they would have been built up using entirely different sets of information. Just wondering.
What about using not only real life events but real life people? Am I justified in throwing about names if I am not an expert on them? An example from today would be using Putin’s name in a story. Do I need to read some biographies on him before feeling okay about doing that or can I just say that if the character doesn’t know anything about him then I don’t need to either? Does it really matter? Who is going to judge the quality of setting if it is a tiny part of the story? Can I simply hide behind the characters and leave it at that?
The difference would be using a real life event as the core fundamental concept of the book. As a reader I can’t say I know much about Indian independence from British rule but what if as a writer I wanted to use that? I’m obviously talking about one of the greats here, Salman Rushdie and Midnight’s Children. Slightly different to my ability I’ll grant you ;) my level is probably more to do with the closing of a pub in my local High Street, not exactly a high-level global political diplomatic earthquake but by using a famous example I hope you get my drift. I don’t think at this stage of my ability i.e. the very beginning, I have got it in me to make any grand political statements but it is just a thought!
It is something I will keep in mind and take seriously as the years go on because I do feel that I want to use real life events in my work but to what extent I want to use them to make an interesting and realistic story, or to make any social or political points I don’t know, that will emerge as I start writing I guess.
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