Local sensitivities

I was speaking at a local Women’s Institute last night, and chose to focus on the challenge of writing fiction set in my local area within living memory. It’s a tricky issue, and it’s rarely raised as a question when I talk about my books, so I wanted to air it myself.

Here in West Cumbria, and in many other settled rural locations I’m sure, people are sensitive about where they live, their neighbours, their histories and their reputations. Details of the landscape are very well known to those who’ve lived in the same village for generations, and memories are long and intense. I realised very soon after I came to live here ten years ago that ‘offcomers’ like me are a subject of curiosity and possible suspicion. Would I ‘fit in’ I wondered? It’s easy to upset local sensitivities, although forgiveness is quick if your motives are deemed to be positive, which is just as well or you could be so afraid of upsetting someone that you compromise yourself too much.

The up side of local fiction is that people love to read about where they live, to see familiar names and places on the page. But you have to get them right! I know of one place in ‘A Good Liar’ where I’ve given the wrong name to one of the passes that run between the valleys, spokes of a wheel on the west side of the Lake District with the Scafells at the hub.  Was it Black Sail pass that should have been Scarth Gap or the other way round? It’ll be corrected before the next reprint.

In developing characters to populate this landscape I have carefully avoided any similarity in name, appearance or disposition to anyone I know to be living or have lived here. It’s a fiction, I tell my local readers repeatedly: you may recognise some of the places but the people are made up. Some still nod sagely and tap the side of the nose to indicate that they know I have to say that, but we both know that one of the characters is really so-and-so, isn’t it, eh? There is one exception to this rule, the vicar Lionel Leadbetter in ‘A Good Liar’, who was based on the real vicar of Waberthwaite and Corney in the early years of the last century. Stories about Rev. Pottinger abound and he was clearly an important and recogniseable local figure who made his mark on this community in a positive way, despite of or more likely because of his energy and forceful personality.

In the second book of the trilogy ‘Forgiven’ I wanted one of my characters to be part of the main background event, the explosion in the William Pit in August 1947 that killed 104 men and boys. Each of the 104 was memorialised in a poignant book called ‘104 Men’, published a few years ago. Was it ethically appropriate for me to add another fictional person to that list, the 105th man, just to beef up my story? I decided not, not because I was afraid of any local reaction but because it wouldn’t be right. Another opportunity to blend fact with fiction was available, however, and I took it. Three men walked out of that pit alive, 20 hours after the explosion took place. Their experiences were told, first hand, to the enquiry held by the national Coal Board into the disaster, and I had one of my characters become part of that small group, to live and tell the story of courage and experience and resourcefulness that saved their lives.

The third book ‘Fallout’ presented a further, and the most tricky, demand to a writer looking to blend fact and fiction in an era where the facts are still within living memory. In October 1957 the nuclear reactor at Windscale, just up the coast from here, heated up uncontrollably and then caught fire. It was a tiny reactor by modern standards but if the fire had caused the reactor building to collapse, which was possible, the uncontrolled release of radio-active material into the atmosphere would have been disastrous. In my book ‘Fallout’ this event forms the backdrop to the final part of the family drama that began twenty years before with the start of my trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’. Some of the details about what happened at Windscale (now re-named Sellafield) are well-known to many local people, although much of the story – and in particular the underlying causes of the accident – was protected by the Officlal Secrets Act until the papers were released in 2007. In writing the first fictional acciount of what happened during that historic week, I had to make two choices. First, I decided to place a fictional character right at the heart of the action, in the form of a nuclear expert called Lawrence Finer who had been seconded to Windscale to help with problems in the reactor. Secondly, I chose to include some of the key people at the plant as minor backdrop characters, observed by Lawrence Finer as they played their roles during the crisis. I was worried about legal as well as ethical considerations and took advice from a lawyer who specialises in publishing matters. I was told that my treatment should address three issues; one, were the facts about the people and their tasks accurate? two, were the ‘real’ people well in the background, not the foreground of the story? third was anything going to be recorded in my work that could be deemed damaging to the reputations of these people?

I was lucky. The facts had been meticulously gathered and recorded in a book written by the official Atomic Energy Authority historian, Lorna Arnold in ‘Windscale 1957: Anatomy of a Nuclear Accident’. I had already given the key role to a fictional character who was plausible but had no actual equivalent in the plant at that time, leaving the ‘real’ characters in the background. And, thanks to the actual exemplary expertise and courage of the men I chose to mention, their reputations – which had been unfairly damaged at the time by the Government enquiry into the incident – could be enhanced rather than damaged by the facts of the case. On that basis I decided to go ahead, but when the book was published in June 2014 I had some concerns about a possible local reaction. To this date, there has been none, apart from the repeated feedback from people who worked at the plant that they didn’t previously know what had really happened there in October 1957. Incidentally, some of the irradiated mess left behind after the reactor fire was extinguished is still being dismantled today, 60 years later. In this part of the world, the fact that nothing has been said to my face to indicate unhappiness about my treatment of the story doesn’t mean that nothing is out there. The only roundabout feedback has been that a relative of one of them men involved bought several copies of the book to send to family members in Australia. I interpret this – if true – an an indication of acceptance, but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

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