Is fiction influenced by the factual world? I believe it is. Do writers live a purely fantasy existence? Unlikely, unless they’re fictional.
All of us are touched by the world around us, and this is often at its height when a writer has the beginning of an idea in their head. The world becomes a data feed for the receptor within the creative brain and consciously or subconsciously guides you towards that magical thing called story. Some writers plot everything out beforehand, others are like me, and they go fishing whilst the story is in its infancy, then take another dip in the middle of writing it, and visit it all over again after the first draft.
But let’s start with research, and the factual information that gives your tale its authenticity and believability, and if you’ve done your job right, will immerse the reader in a fictional world with enough foundation, structure and backbone, to make it feel real.
I’ve discovered some guidelines about information gathering along the way
Guideline Number 1 – Research, research, and research, and in case you missed it, research. All my novels involve the application of psychology to the motivation and actions of the killer. They also have a police procedural aspect, along with a fair dash of forensic data. I’m not a police officer, or a forensic scientist or a psychologist. I’m a writer and I create fiction. This is where research matters, and for me it takes a number of strands. Firstly, there is a host of information online, plus written research in book form, along with that fabulous resource known as ‘people you know’. I tap into all of these. If at the early stages when the story is forming in my mind, and my research fails to answer an important question, I dig deeper and call in the professionals. I may ask my question/questions to a detective, a forensic scientist or a psychologist, depending on the nature of the query, and this brings me to ….
Guideline Number 2– never waste a professional’s time with a question you can find the answer to elsewhere. Your source will consider you lazy, and you don’t want that to happen.
Now the great thing about information gathering is that it can spark new fictional ideas, and this is where we’re back to writers being influenced by fact. Solid factual research will enhance a story provided you follow…..
Guideline Number 3 – When you’ve captured all your research, DO NOT turn your novel into an ‘instruction manual’ or a ‘guide to’ no matter how delighted you are with your information. Readers won’t thank you for it. They’re looking for story. If they want ‘a how’ to manual, or a ‘guide to mountain walks’, or any other subset of your research, they will be standing in a different area of the bookstore!
All that being said, the influence of fact over fiction goes deeper than information gathering. A factual event, for example in a historical novel, can be the impetus for the writer choosing that period to explore. Other times a number of factual events can merge, and something different is created. More often than not, important factual events have emotional fallout, and I think this is where the writer’s creative juices go in all sorts of directions, some they may not have envisaged when setting out. This happened to me in the writing of LAST KISS, but before exploring this, there are a couple of things about merging fact with fiction that are also worthy of note.
If an event is tinged with sadness for real people in the real world, it is important for writers acknowledge this in their minds and be sure of their motivation. I know few writers who want to profit from someone else’s misery. If they did, I believe their writing would suffer for it as it would lack soul. That being said, there are events which absolutely spark questions, and although primarily a writer busies themselves in the art of writing, there is often an emotional impetus that drives their narrative or theme.
I think all great novels ask something of the writer and the reader. Apart from the pure entertainment aspect, there is a kind of emotional underbelly, often uncomfortable, sometimes tinged with sadness, sometimes so close to reality you can almost feel the fear. Put simply, we can’t deny that readers and writers live in the factual world, but sometimes reality and fantasy can overlap.
For me, in writing LAST KISS, it was the utterly tragic events of 1984, that wouldn’t leave my mind. Ann Lovett, aged 15, pregnant and having started labour, took a detour to a local graveyard. She laboured alone for hours in the rain. Both she and her baby died that day. The inquest into her death said, ‘death was due to irreversible shock caused by haemorrhage and exposure during childbirth.’ LAST KISS, is not the story of Ann Lovett, or of her son, nor is it the story of the moral outrage their deaths caused at the time, coinciding with the Kerry baby scandal; but nonetheless, both these true life stories stayed with me, and they were partly the impetus for my fictional tale.
Perhaps it helped that nearly 30 years had passed, but some tragedies never fully leave our psyche. I know people who still pray for Ann Lovett and her baby every single night. I guess the thing for me is, I began to realise 3 novels in, is that nature versus nurture is a pivotal element of my storytelling, and one question wouldn’t go away: what would happen if a baby survived the death of their mother, and in the context of this fictional story was reared by someone evil? I’ve never explored the theme of nature versus nurture, good versus evil, quite so deeply before, and I hope you agree, it is a fictional story worth telling.
(c) Louise Phillips
About Last Kiss