Set and setting

There’s a good piece by Hilary Mantel on writing fiction. Interesting stuff on page versus screen revising, but I don’t understand this bit about research:

My most shaming moment as a writer came when a novel was about to go to press and I realised I had sent my characters on the wrong rail route between Norfolk and London. I caught the pages just in time. I think of the letters I would have got. Years later, they’d still have been steaming in. I’d have had to strike back and say, well, there you are, if you want a railway timetable, don’t consult a novelist. But my heart wouldn’t have been in it. I’d have known I was at fault. I’d still be waking up in the night, more than 10 years on, and wondering what on earth possessed me to send them via Ely.

Isn’t this a bit neurotic? I think that in historical fiction, the details matter – George Pelecanos has said that ‘I’m obsessed to the point where if I have a character walking down the street in April 1968 and there’s something playing in the movie theatre, you can believe the movie was playing that week.’

But general fiction? I think it’s important for a story to have a strong sense of place, whether it is set in London, Borneo or Mid-World. A lot of writers attempt to make their work timeless by avoiding that sense of place, but this almost always result in watery, transparent prose.

But Mantel goes to the other extreme: there’s no need to recreate the world as it is, down to the atom – that is reportage, not writing. The Manchester I write about will be the Manchester of my head, not the city as it exists: your interpretations of the world will always be different, and the degrees will lend colour and life to contemporary fiction.

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7 Responses to “Set and setting”

  1. Elizabeth Says:

    Mm, I don’t know whether this is what Mantel is getting at, but isn’t there the problem of negotiating the literal reader’s responses? ie if people do care about such accuracies – and it seems many readers do – then it matters, because once they are thrown by something like that, the authority of the whole thing (novel, story, whatever) is thrown into question for them.

    One very good reason not to write realism, I guess.

  2. maxdunbar Says:

    I agree that there should be a basic level of research, but few will notice and fewer care about an inaccuracy on a train route.

  3. Elizabeth Says:

    Not sure about that. Adele Geras told me recently that someone informed her that she had got it wrong in ‘Troy’: Apparently they didn’t have lemons in Asia Minor (or was in Greece?; personally, I neither know nor care) at the time. I think it’s amazing how fact-hooked readers can be.

  4. maxdunbar Says:

    But I think we have to beware of what Christopher Brookmyre calls ‘research-itis’ which so quickly and easily descends into pedantry.

  5. Elizabeth Says:

    Well, I couldn’t agree more with that. I loathe research for myself. It always seems so beside the point, which is as far as I’m concerned is emotional rather than factual truth. And I dislike intensely books where the research is on show. I suppose it all comes down to the same thing for me: the fictive experience can be spoilt either by obvious research or a very glaring error (though the last isn’t nearly so important for me, personally). A real case in point for me was Atonement where I thought the research was very much on show, which kind of primed me to look for mistakes and to be put off when I thought found one: I’m pretty sure they didn’t have bright-red towels in the thirties, or the kinds of patterns around socks which only came in with modern knitting machines (though a much older friend disagreed with me). I guess the point is that we shouldn’t have been led to end up debating it in the first place.

  6. maxdunbar Says:

    I think research is important to some extent. I have just written the first draft of a novel and spent a few weeks before that doing research. The novel took me into places I don’t know much about.

    It is necessary but there is a big temptation to show off your research and bury the story in big chunks of facts. I haven’t read Atonement but, from what you say, it sounds like McEwan has made this mistake here.

    I’d understand Mantel’s attitude if she had made a continuity error – even a minor fuckup in continuity really breaks the spell. But research? No. I think as long as you have a good working knowledge of what you are writing about then you’ll be fine.

  7. Elizabeth Says:

    Yes, you’re right. Research is of course often necessary, and it’s how it’s handled that’s important. And yes, the most important thing of all is not to break the spell.

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