Primary Sources

Last week, I finally managed to have a good look at a book which plays a significant part in my new novel and which I had so far only seen online. Online was good but seeing something in reality is infinitely better. It's a very rare book which is housed on the twelfth floor of Glasgow University Library. Just getting there involved filling in a small succession of forms for a string of helpful assistants, one to get a day pass, two to find out where the book might be, three to request sight of it in the quiet reading room on the top floor. Even that assumed the nature of a pilgrimage with the lift getting progressively less and less busy until there was only me and a disembodied voice for company.

The book which was brought to me was not the original, which is too valuable to be handled except under controlled conditions, but a very early facsimile. The assistant rested the book, a large folio consisting of anatomical drawings with commentary, on a foam book rest and asked me to take notes in pencil. I hadn't actually thought that I was going to take notes, because the main point of the visit was to see the illustrations rather than reading the commentary, which was available elsewhere. I was acutely conscious that I was looking at a rare book, and - to handle it with due care - had to stand up to get a proper perspective on the pictures. In the event the illustrations were so moving, and aroused such strange feelings in me that I took out my notebook, borrowed a pencil from the helpful librarian and wrote several pages of impressions, missing my lunch, and almost missing another appointment in the process.
The book figures throughout my novel, and is a key part of the story, but there is a chapter which - after this visit - will most certainly have to be rewritten.

All of which, got me thinking. A writers' forum of which I'm a member has recently been discussing a Scottish historical novel by a writer who had better remain nameless. I haven't read it myself, so I perhaps shouldn't be commenting, but the consensus was that it was a 'good' book in the sense of being enjoyable, although the writer had confessedly never been to Scotland, and the novel had many 'howlers' in the historical sense. Many people thought that this didn't matter, but I know that it would spoil my enjoyment. The odd inaccuracy I can live with. But there comes a moment, I suppose, when no matter how evocative or interesting the writing, a real failure of research challenges your 'willing suspension of disbelief' to the point where you can't carry on reading.

On the other hand, a regular cop-out for beginning writers is to say 'but it really happened like that' when some piece of writing isn't quite working. Because of course fiction isn't the same as fact. We aim for truth, but we also aim for make-believe. We try to shape events and perceptions so that the reader will say 'yes, life is like that' without at the same time constantly tripping over hurdles of realism or research so cliched or banal that they get in the way of our journey through a novel or story or play.

No wonder we have problems.