On Research and Digging Deep: Setting the Tone for Believability

(This is a brief followup on the theme of researching for my next novel, “The Two Sisters”.)

I’ve probably stated this before in previous posts, but factual research is a big deal to me. I don’t claim to be the most tenacious digger of facts, but if, as a Reader, I can’t relate to some level of realism in a story or its characters, the author will easily lose me.

The raw material of a story or any creative work comes from two categories of sources: the Subjective and the Objective. Subjective material includes events, memories and things of with which you have a direct personal involvement and/or memory. They can also be fuzzy, under-defined, elusive or prone to contradiction – after all, they are your memories – and from my experience, human memory is fragile and subject to change without notice. But, still, it’s yours and you own it, and it’s there to be utilized.

Objective material means, to me, information that has been documented, and hopefully verified, by third parties, associations, papers or contains some testament as to its proof, like scientific research.

Somewhere between these two opposite categories sits the Artist, who must decide how and when to engage either side, and whether to use an unbalanced or balanced approach.

For example, I remember an article by James Bond creator, Ian Fleming, who advised writers that when creating a thriller novel the author must include enough realism to provide a solid base upon which the more fantastic elements of the story can stand. In other words, Fleming said that if you can initially establish believability and credibility in the known and possible elements of your story (the recognizable places, personalities and objects), the reader would be more likely to accept and engage in any unknown or seemingly impossible elements.

This kind of social realism is a core approach that I took in my first novel, Owe Nothing, where I tried to create a detailed, recognizable, and somewhat gritty¬† portrait of my home town of Vancouver, BC. I tried to kind of iconify settings such as rusted, rotting motels, junk-strewn alleys and fast food drive-thrus. I’ve read some novels which, in my opinion, have almost no scenic descriptions at all; everything is described in between a character’s ears, but almost nowhere else (“The Boys From Brazil”, I’m looking at you).

By contrast, thriller/detective authors like Ian Fleming, Dashiell Hammett and especially Raymond Chandler, have a way of bringing places to life and almost transforming them into characters in their own right. In “The Lady in the Lake”, Chandler makes you taste the dust inside the deserted lakeside cabins in a little town. In “Live and Let Die”, Fleming evokes the neon sights, blues and jazz music, speech patterns and emotions of Harlem in the mid-50s (at least from the perspective of a middle-aged Englishman). Rich settings like this help to involve the reader in the world to a greater degree, and to legitimize and contextualize the characters.

Subjective work can be more elusive and difficult to feel confident about. I have a major character in “The Two Sisters”, Rose, who in her teen years suffered a horrific personal assault – the kind that I’ve never experienced personally. To create this event for Rose, I had to dig down into a few scared, sad moments from my own youth (as well as read testimonies from other sources) and synthesize the character’s physical and emotional responses, layering them with the in-the-moment sights and sounds that add a level of irony, symbolism and drama, all while relating to larger plot line and themes of the story.

Often, the subjective and objective aspects are intermingled. In her later years, Rose becomes a long-term resident of a psychiatric hospital. I began to describe her appearance and behaviour quite easily, since I based her on my late mother, who was a 14 year resident of BC’s provincial mental health facility, Riverview Hospital.

However, describing the specific medication or intimate details of the day-to-day life of a Riverview resident are much more difficult, and require research to be accurate. Few people will ever try to refute your subjective personal experiences or opinions, but things that are objective, verifiable matters of record are certainly more vulnerable to scrutiny.

It’s the Author’s job to set the terms for believability and plausibility inside the worlds and the characters they create. I haven’t become skilled enough to let my characters push the bounds of believability within their own worlds (i.e. to bust through that invisible wall to the audience, as it were), and use the voice of an incredulous reader (“that doesn’t seem real to me”, etc.) but perhaps one day…

At the end of the day, no work can be perfect. I think that most readers are willing to forgive minor inconsistencies or errors, so long as they believe that the author has made their best effort to get the facts straight and to present an entertaining and believable story.

Related: http://ejohnlovebooks.com/2010/08/research-photos-from-riverview/

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