‘Real’ people in a fictional story: some questions

I’m writing historical fiction set in the region where I live, in the mid-twentieth century and therefore within living memory. I have also chosen to incorporate real events as the backdrop for my characters’ lives. I don’t regret this choice: it has added authenticity and genuine excitement to the story, but it has generated ethical as well as technical questions.

Here’s the first example. In August 1947 104 men and boys were killed in an underground explosion at the William pit in Whitehaven. This event was part of the ‘backdrop’ of my second novel ‘Forgiven’ in which a mining family, the McSherrys from Kells, played a leading part. Violet McSherry and her daughter Maggie Lowery were both screen lasses at the Haig pit, and Frank McSherry was confined to a wheelchair by a previous mining accident. Violet’s brother Tom worked at the William Pit, on the shift that was below ground when the explosion occurred. I wanted one of my characters to be involved, but could Tom be one of the men who was killed? No, I decided, he could not. The families of those killed still live in the area. A book called ‘104 men’ chronicled the lives of each of the victims. I could not ‘borrow’ the identity of any of these people, or add Tom to the list as the 105th victim, without risking offence. Instead, I added Tom to the small group who managed to escape the explosion and walked out of the pit unharmed 20 hours later. This device gave me the opportunity to tell the story from the POV of a survivor, and the story of the men’s survival was fascinating in itself. This story has been widely read and enjoyed locally, and to date no one has questioned my decision to blend fact and fiction in this way.

In Part 3 of the trilogy ‘Fallout’, a similar issue has arisen, and I am still pondering the best course of action before the book is complete and published. This time the setting is the Windscale nuclear plant in Cumbria where the world’s first nuclear fire occurred in October 1957. The events have been exhaustively documented in recent years, although many of the details were not published at the time for political reasons. One of the principal characters is a fictional physicist Lawrence Finer, seconded to Windscale from Harwell, the nuclear research establishment near Oxford. Finer is present as the fire in the reactor starts, threatens to destroy the reactor and is finally extinguished. He is spoken to by men who were ‘really’ there, including Tom Tuohy the Deputy Works manager at the time who was instrumental in ‘saving the day’. I have put words into his mouth, and into the mouths of three other ‘real’ people, based on my detailed research into exactly what was said and done at the time. It makes for an exciting blend of fact and fiction, but is it acceptable?

My editor Charlotte Rolfe is on the case, and has already consulted a publishing lawyer, who has read the relevant chapters and believes that they are OK: the ‘real’ characters are in the background, not the foreground; nothing that they say or do is detrimental to their reputations – in fact quite the opposite; what they say is consistent with the known and documented facts. He also, by the way, said that the chapter describing the fire was ‘rivetting’ which I was chuffed about.

I wonder if other historical novelists struggle with these questions? I wonder if I should give first sight of the ms before publication to the relatives of the four men named in my story, out of respect and politeness, even though technically and legally the ms is not a problem. I want to do the right thing, and I also believe that a fictional account of what happened at that momentous time is worth telling.

Ironically, on this very day, Sellafield nuclear plant is partly closed due to an apparent radiation leak, and the issue of nuclear safety is on our minds yet again.

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Writing about sex

After nearly three books with my main character Jessie Whelan, I know that sex has always been important to her. Her first affair resulted in a baby she was forced to give away; the second reckless fling with a much younger man ended with a drunken sexual assault that left her bruised and humiliated. When the love of her life finally arrives, how will the sex be, if at all? And – the big question for me – how will I represent this on the page without being too graphic or too coy, and in a way that honestly illuminates their relationship, as the best sex should?

Writing about Jessie’s violent encounter with the young man in ‘A Good Liar’ (Book 1 of the trilogy) was very difficult: even thinking about it in retrospect makes me feel uncomforatble. The first draft of the sex scene in Book 3 ‘Fallout’ was easier to write, but that may be because both parties are clearer about what they mean to each other. It also helps that their friendship is based on mutual intellectual respect and a similarly rational, even ‘matter-of-fact’ approach to sex as a natural extension of their close relationship. Now I’m on the second draft, and the issue is on my mind again. My guess is that some of my readers will prefer implicit allusions with more left to their imagination, while others would prefer more explicitness. Anyone who thinks that sex is irrelevant doesn’t understand Jessie Whelan.

So far in writing this scene I’ve been explicit about a few ‘stages’ in the first sexual encounter, but left gaps, to avoid the tedium of a ‘blow by blow’ (sorry!) account. It is their first time and both partners are relatively inexperienced, so extended feats of sexual athletics are therefore unlikely. I anticipate that their enjoyment of each other will grow with trust and practice, and this might be hinted at later. Despite all the passion, we can still laugh about sex too, and they do. My mother would have been appalled, no doubt, but my heroine doesn’t aspire to be ‘lady-like’.

I’ll have another go at it and then check with one or two people for their reactions. My best hope is to steer a readable middle ground between too much information and too little, and to avoid the ghastly Lawrentian euphemisms that ruined a good story in ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. If you want to see how it turns out in the end, Fallout should be out in June 2014. The difficult sex scene in ‘A Good Liar’ can be found in the book, which you can get through my website or through Amazon. The Kindle version is available as well.

Point of view – a more detailed look

When you’re a fiction-writing novice like me, it’s hard to know what you don’t know. Not only had I never written fiction before I started on my first novel in 2008 aged sixty, I’d never learned anything about writing, no courses, no books, not even in a book club, although I read widely and daily. In those circumstances I embarked on the novel with confidence born of ignorance. I thought I could put words together quite effectively, but I hadn’t thought about structure or any other key questions. First person or third? Past tense or present? Plot-driven or character-driven?

In Part One of what was to become a trilogy I started with two questions for the reader: who pushed Alice in the river, and would the abandoned child ultimately find his mother? It was only after a year or two of hopeless meandering and some very critical professional feedback that I realised that neither of these questions really mattered. The most interesting questions were: why does cautious Jessie take a lover, and then another, and what happens when the abandoned child turns up twenty years later.

The key point raised by my ‘reviewer’ (Sarah Bower for The Literary Consultancy) was that I didn’t seem to understand ‘point of view’. Whose eyes are you looking through, Sarah asked; whose ears hear what’s being said? In the draft that I submitted for critique the point of view sometimes varied randomly from one sentence to the next, as if the narrator of the action was formless, slipping at will into the shoes of whoever might be around in the scene. I wasn’t bothered whether the eyes and ears were those of a major character or a minor one. I called it kaleidoscopic, she called it a mess.

My reactions to the critique were classic: for a number of weeks I put both it and the manuscript aside and refused to think about them. Then I decided that ‘point of view’ was a pretty silly concept and therefore it couldn’t matter much. In the end I bowed to the unavoidable conclusion that my reviewer knew much more about writing fiction than I do, and that I should think more about what she had suggested. Choose two or three characters to carry the ‘point of view’ she had said, no more. Make it clear to the reader whose point of view is paramount, chapter by chapter. If you want to change it within a single chapter do so carefully and purposefully.

It was soon very clear why I was tempted to either ignore the critique and abandon the whole project or carry on regardless. Limiting the points of view in this way changed everything. Almost every chapter would have to be re-written. And then another realisation hit me: if I wanted to tell a complicated story with very limited points of view, some of the details would have to be conveyed indirectly as none of my key protagonists could realistically be involved in witnessing the action directly. Sounds complicated, and it was. The first draft of the first novel took two years, and the radical redraft a further two before I had anything that was worth polishing. The effort involved, sustained by only a faint glimmer of confidence in the potential outcome, nearly finished me off. It was only stubborn determination not to waste the effort completely that finally pushed me to finish ‘A Good Liar’, cope with the repeated generic brush-offs from agents and decide in the end to publish the book myself.

The second and third parts of my trilogy have continued the decisions about third person, past tense and two or three points of view adopted for part 1. But now I’m thinking about what to write once the trilogy is complete, which should be summer 2014. Knowing what I know now, what different choices could I make about the next novel I hope to write?

My own reading has become more analytical, more aware of tenses, voice, dialogue and structure. Maybe reading fiction is like watching cricket: you never really understand what’s going on unless you’ve played it yourself. And I’m still thinking about ‘point of view’. If you choose the singular point of view, as in Jane Austen, all the action and details necessary for the reader have to be conveyed through the eyes and ears of one person. That person has to be in every scene, witnessing the action directly or hearing about it from someone else. Unless this key protagonist is merely the constant recipient of other people’s news, he or she has to drive the action forward by their own actions, or inactions.

I recall reading Robert Goddard and wondering why his protagonists seem so prone to getting drunk, or over-sleeping, or other mistakes that lead in turn to twists and crises in the plot. With only one point of view there’s no other way to drive the plot forward. Those same necessary personal frailties apply in spades to various contemporary fictional detectives – Morse and Wallender to name but two – who are irredeemably prone to aberrant behaviours, depression and dysfunctional personal relationships. How else can drama be created?

As writers we are faced with a choice of singular, limited or multiple points of view. What are the implications for both writers and readers? Do different genres necessarily deal with this issue in different ways?