Digging for Truffles
Following on from Alyson’s blog about the importance of titles, I stole this catchy phrase from a chapter in Jonathan Falla’s book ‘The Craft of Fiction’, which is about doing research for a novel. Again, I’ll quote him: ‘truffles - those tiny nuggets of intense flavour that bring cooking and writing alive.’ Thanks, Mr Falla, I couldn’t put it better.
I’ve been doing a lot of research lately and often get carried away, such is the abundance of information on the Internet. I scan and read and click on links, and before I know where I am the sun has dipped below the horizon, there’s a rumbling in my stomach, and my husband’s screaming for dinner.
Hurriedly, I bookmark or copy and paste far too much material to use. It was fun, but was it a waste of time? I don’t think so. By filing away the dull factual material for possible future reference, I start hunting for truffles. I’m happy to know more than the reader does, but need to force myself not to spurt it all out on the page. Just give them the quirky bits.
I often wonder how factually accurate a novel should be, if based around an actual period or event? Surely, the odd error is acceptable? This is fiction after all. Doesn’t a sprinkling of imagination add to the story rather than take away from it? It’s easy to search Wikipedia. Unreliable I know (my grandfather had a sister – no, he didn’t!) and certainly the content seldom has the ‘intense truffle flavour’ I’m looking for. It has the dry facts, not the ‘essence’. So where to look?
Sites like YouTube, Flickr and Google Images have helped me with settings, but mostly they show relatively recent videos and photos– so it’s easy to come up with glaring anachronisms. As an extreme example, a photo might show a background of high-rise apartments, but at the time of your novel the people lived in mud huts. Say no more. In general, though, the scenery of the countryside doesn’t change that much.
Then, I need to know what makes my characters tick (in a particular country/situation/era). What they talked about, and why. What their conventions were. How they reacted to things. One source is personal blogs. I’ve even found eye-witness accounts of an event I’m writing about. Here too, I’ll occasionally come across that tiny nugget – perhaps an emotional response – that I’m looking for. Call it a truffle, if you like. Novels and books come up with precious material too – unbeatable for the overall picture – though much more time-consuming to research.
So, with a computer threatening to explode with bookmarked Internet pages, and a desk scattered with near-illegible notes taken from books and novels, what comes next? It’s truffle harvest time! After I’ve deleted/tossed out the boring stuff (toadstools?) my laptop and desk have room to breathe again…until I start the next research project.
How do you research your work? How much do you include? And how accurate should the facts be when writing fiction? Have you any tips?