Using Real Events
I mentioned this in my previous blog so for once I thought I had better follow up. One of the short stories I’m attempting to write at the moment uses a real event as part of its storyline, not exactly a plot device, nor simply background description. It’s an attempt to create some sort of analogy with the transition from youth to teenage years or possibly adulthood. I haven’t really smoothed it all out yet so I can’t admit to it being any more than wishful thinking on my part. For this blog however I’m not going to discuss the story. I’m going to talk about what happened once I decided to look into this event in more detail and the feelings it brought up.
First off, the event I’m referring to is the storm that occurred in the UK and other parts of Europe in October 1987. Therefore it has a historical element too i.e. it’s not a very recent event when relating it to a person’s lifetime, although not historical in the sense I immediately think medieval for some reason. So I think it’s different from using a real life event that say, is set in modern day London and describes getting on the bus. Secondly, I was only 8, about to turn 9 years old, so I cannot claim to be a reliable witness. I was a child who thought and spoke as a child and trying to describe the event as a 34 year old creates problems.
The main problem is that I can hardly remember a thing about it! It’s strange but when I found the original note for this story, a scrap of paper amongst the files, I immediately thought, yes, this is great, I remember this really well, I can easily write about what went on. That turned out to be a huge assumption because actually when all these years later I sat down to start on it, I found that what I thought I remembered proved false.
I should quickly say that I mentioned in the previous blog that the story changed quite dramatically from the idea I had noted down however long ago and that’s true, once I did start on it the story became something far different from its conception and I won’t talk about that today, ahem, you can all wait for the story ;) It’s part of the reason it has taken me so long! I honestly thought it would be a quick 5k words, a straightforward recollection of a memory. Instead it has morphed into something that has really tested me. I am extremely happy about it and very excited by the story so I’m glad it went this way, but dear me, it has been a painful process.
Back to the point. This specific event had now turned into the most important aspect of the story. Not because of the physical event itself, but more because of the impact it has on our characters and what it signifies to them. So all of a sudden I’m panicking a bit because I’m writing about something I have no confidence in. I can’t really remember it properly and where I thought I could blag it before because it was only a small part of the story, I can no longer get away with that. Time to research!
This may seem the most obvious statement in the world to you but when you are writing fiction (listen to me talking as if I know what I’m going on about! I promise you I haven’t forgotten I’m a novice in all this!) and you are writing about things you know most of the work comes in developing the characters. You are either good at describing a bus, as per above, or you’re not. You don’t need to study buses unless you are going for fantastic levels of realism, or you are inferring knowledge that your characters possess i.e. there is a conversation concerning the designers and engineers who built the buses, when certain lines or routes opened, their top speeds, the size of their engines, their braking time, and all that type of stuff. If you are just describing someone getting on the bus, well I have done that a thousand times so I don’t need to research it to that extent. Get some photos or look up the specific bus stop or station you mention, that sort of thing sure, but more than that in most cases won’t be necessary because you are using your skills of description rather than replicating data (I can feel the wrath of your feedback already...)
Let’s cut to it then. What did I do in order to make sure I felt confident describing this event? Well, the first step was Google. Come on, don’t scream at me! Of course I Googled it! First off, I’m in another country with no access to local libraries so what else am I supposed to do? It was a very interesting journey. I learnt through sites such as Wikipedia, the BBC and other news and reporting sites detailed information about the storm itself: the scale, the speeds, the timelines, the financial cost, very sadly the human cost – most reports indicate 22 people died in the storm - so that was a shock to me and suddenly made my somewhat light approach much more serious. It was never going to be a funny story and I was never going to joke about the storm but after reading that I felt a sense of duty not to slack about describing it faithfully. I read about how many trees had fallen, I read about what train lines were closed, what buildings were affected, what utility supplies were affected; I read about the theory on its influence on (what in the UK was named Black Monday) a stockmarket crash in the city, I read about its effect on parts of the country I have absolutely no connection with but by that time I was into it and wanted to know as much as I could. I read about the media response. I read about the meteorological reasons it took place, and so on and so on, you get the idea. I read up on it so much that I got lost in the details. I read one hundred times the amount of information I would ever actually need for the story and if you look at it that way I probably wasted a huge amount of time researching far too much unnecessary info.
Then I moved onto friends and family. The obvious first hand sources such as my mum! That was a funny call. Mum, do you remember that storm in 1987? Oh yeah, one of the biggest storms in UK recorded history that nearly blew our house down? Yeah that one.
It’s funny because my memory was corrected immediately. Did I do this, did I do that? No, actually you did this and you did that. The total opposite! So straight away some of my assumptions were destroyed and I had to start again in terms of how I wanted to use that intended info.
However, what was fantastic is that I received really, really good information. First hand accounts from people who were adults at the time. Specific info that tallied up to national records but gave a local feel and local sensibility, which is of course exactly what I was after. I’m not writing a school report after all, I want emotions, I want reactions; I want real life.
Then I looked at information regarding the locations I was using. I won’t go into it because as I said, it’s not even finished in draft form yet, but I have two specific places, real places, that I am using and one is inferred so I suppose could be anywhere, but the other is specifically named. So I have a duty to describe it and describe it well. Again, the whole point of using this real place is that it is meant to signify a turning point in their lives and the place itself almost takes on the role of an extra character.
Imagine a place you have been to a thousand times. Imagine somewhere you think you know like the proverbial back of the hand. Imagine somewhere that is such a part of your life it feels as if you see it everyday. Well, that is what I thought of this location. And then I did some research. It wasn’t that I was wrong in what I knew…it was just that what I knew was so little compared to what there was to know! It was a fantastic time looking at various websites and online reports. I really enjoyed learning about a place I thought I knew well. And that’s justified I think. Why would any of us, unless we are really into history, research the every day places that are in our lives? That’s part of the fun of writing. I get to look at things differently. That pub you go into every week – do you know its history? That train station you journey into every day – do you know its history? That road you drive up to get home every night – do you know when it was built and why and the reason it has the name it has? Probably not, we can’t spend all our spare time researching info we will never have any reason to use. But when you are writing, even if 99% of the research will be discarded, it is enormous fun to learn and use it for your work, and the best thing of all, is that even if only one tiny gem, one small nugget of gold, comes from your research it will improve your story a million fold. There is nothing better than looking at something and going – yes! That will work, that will really add something to the story…and sometimes even better, you get that yes moment and it takes you into a new direction that you may not have thought of before and it is fantastic and adds something new to your work. It really is a great feeling. As I say, even if it is just 1% that gets used, and you have spent an entire week reading countless articles that in the end you never use, it still makes you feel better.
So I think I’ll leave it there for now. The importance of research you probably already knew no doubt, but I thought I would add my own slant of researching something you thought you knew personally. For instance if I am writing about the second world war then it is something you already realise you know only generalisations about, you may know about certain key events, certain key figures, certain key locations and so on, but unless you are a scholar in the field there is no shame in admitting you don't know a huge amount of fine detail, statistics, etc. sure it’s part of my life as it is most peoples, my grandparents were involved, I learnt about it at school and so on…but for deeper insights and concrete information you know you have to hit the reference books, no two ways about it. But when I am working on something that I was there for, actually in the middle of, then the need for research is vital because you can be too confident in your own recollection, it's hard to admit that you cannot trust your own memory, after all if you are claiming to be a writer then that's the whole point of your craft isn't it? To make things up from memory, but actually, if you are honest, you need evidence for what you are saying more than you probably realise and you need to learn more about it in more detail than you think because you can be damn sure you don’t know it all, and more than likely got some stuff wrong.
And all that for a short story that will probably be about 15k words and hardly mention anything about the bloody storm! Well, it kept me busy I guess.
P.S: Remember a bit earlier I mentioned I’m abroad so I can’t access local info such as libraries? Well, that is on my to-do list. I’m not publishing anything while I am out here, it will all remain in draft form until I get back. I need to get proper critical feedback on them and that will give me the chance to do a bit of local research so for now I just want to get the bulk of the story completed. I can do a bit of finessing later.
P.P.S: I can’t emphasise enough how much of an amateur I am. I am only trying to explain my feelings towards the process of writing and to share my experiences. I am in now way trying to claim I have expertise in the art of writing! This is my process and my journey. I don’t want people thinking I am trying to give a master class here.
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I co-titled the blog missing home because it’s true, the last week to ten days I’ve felt pretty homesick. I think it is for two reasons: the first is that, as I said in my last blog, I’ve gone over the six month away mark. There is something about milestones, I can’t help but focus on them. Days, weeks, months and years take on far too much importance for me when I know they signify nothing really but I haven’t broken the bond with them just yet. So when I thought about being away for six months and the obvious resulting thought that it is therefore six months until I am back and I’ve completed more than half of my time out here, it felt a bit odd and I had the feeling that I could quite easily pack up my bags and go home now.
Then of course I have this little chiringuito (beach bar) at the end of my road and I had a couple of beers and I wasn’t in so much of a rush to get back, hehe.
The other reason is that I am in a small town that for the vast majority of the year is extremely quiet. However, July and August are the busy months as with all summer vacation places and the difference between the last weeks in June and the first week in July is incredible. The beaches now have actual people on them, there are people in the cafes and restaurants, there are people swimming in the sea, on jet skis, playing Frisbee and all that other type of stuff. The reason why this has contributed to my sense of homesickness is that of course the holidaymakers tend to be families or groups of friends. So every day I see large groups of friends hanging around enjoying themselves, or mums and dads taking their kids out and it reminded me of what a good time I have with my friends. I miss them a lot. It’s easy to forget that when it is quiet because there are no reminders, you just get on with life.
I’m going to add another reason and it’s partly to do with the main section of this blog, the short story I told you about. I have got pretty much nowhere with the novel I am working on, I’ve spent the vast majority of my writing time on shorts, but the story is set in London so I have been thinking about the place. Then of course I have been researching London for the shorts and that made me look at a lot of photos of all the places I know so well. Combine the two and I really miss London, as much as I was nearly having a panic attack every time I stepped out of the front door before I left, I still miss it and can’t wait to really crack on with the novel and explore first hand all the locations I want to describe. Believe me, I am not unhappy here, it’s fantastic, but this week has been a bit of a test. I think seeing so much trauma, sadness, pain and suffering in the news these last few weeks has had its effect too. Here I am, in a beautiful sunny town in Spain, with no cares in the world (for now) and there is nothing I can do but watch as innocent men, women and children suffer death and mutilation at the hands of powers they have nothing to do with. I can’t help but feel guilty. It’s terrible. It just seems so incredibly unfair that I’m able to pop out to a bar and make myself feel better by having a couple of beers when the most basic of freedoms and liberties and pleasures are denied to so many. Anyway, that’s enough of that. I try to keep this blog mostly non-personal outside of writing so I’ll stop. I’m still having Spanish language lessons and failing miserably to learn. I’m still getting to the gym at least a couple of times a week. I’m enjoying the July sun. So I’m not quitting just yet. I’ll be seeing the year through and what’s more, even though I'm not writing as much as I should be, I'm realising more and more every day how much improvement there is to make and how much care, effort, research and plain old hard graft is involved in producing work of a decent calibre.
Take care everyone,
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