photo by Jeffrey James Yu Pacres
by Pauline Masurel
Should we write what we know or write what we don’t? I belong to a writing group in which the members have differing enthusiasms for realist stories and for fantasy fiction. We’re very good-humoured about our oposing opinions but some admit that they would never normally write/read anything from the opposite side of the road. I actually enjoy making forays back and forth across the border of reality. In fact, I rather enjoy stalking around on the line between the two.
But what do we mean by ‘realist’ anyway? Fiction makes no claim to be fact. So why should it ever be ‘believable’? Probably because most compelling fiction is set in internally consistent worlds. Even if readers have never encountered an environment where such things happen, many like to be convinced that it exists. But not all. There’s nothing to stop a writer picking up the deck of cards and shuffling them halfway through a story. But even if the reader likes surprises, this sort of arbitrary messing with reality can run the risk of breaking the reader-writer contract of trust.
It often takes me a while before aspects of my own life find their way into my short stories. I’ve spent most of my life living in suburbs and in more recent years I’ve lived both in a city and now in a small village; all of these homes have been in England. It’s convenient for me to reference settings that I recognise and so I often borrow from these surroundings, consciously or unconsciously.
I have set stories in other countries when I’ve travelled abroad but I usually place ‘outsiders’ as characters in these stories. I’ve rarely tried to use locations in places that I’ve never visited and it’s not always been successful when I have tried. I think it can be crass to attempt to impersonate a resident point of view after spending only a few days in a place. On the other hand, a fresh pair of eyes can identify things that are striking about an environment, things that may not appear remarkable to a local, and throw them into sharp focus.
In March I attended a talk by Jim Crace at the Bath Literature Festival. Crace confessed that he “likes making things up”. In his fiction he invents anything from insects to whole landscapes. Perhaps this was a rebellion against his days in journalism when he didn’t make things up. He said that he believed in a tradition of fiction that is “non-biographical and invented” and not, as seems more common today, autobiographical and realist. I tend to agree with this approach and think that the the short story can be a wonderful place for experimenting with making things up.
For me, part of the joy of writing fiction is being able to lie. I have enormous admiration for those fiction writers who do copious amounts of research – but I’m not one of them. Incidentally, Jim Crace’s advice on the subject of research was to do it, but not to make notes. This approach can prevent the unseemly spectacle of writing something where the research is ‘hanging out’. The recent Q & A session with David Vann also covered this issue. As Sarah Duncan puts it in a recent blog post, Research is Fun, But That Doesn’t Mean You Should Do It.
But despite my own enthusiasm for telling lies in stories, I’m still partial to a quick google in order to track down a tasty factoid that will spin a little verisimilitude. But it’s often more in the interests of finding out what people think about a thing than to actually discover the truth of the matter. I like lies too much. I think they’re what fiction is for.