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Saul Bellow made some interesting comments about the novel in an interview with The Paris Review. Literal truth versus artistic licence. ‘Literalism, factualism,’ he said. ‘will smother the imagination altogether.’ Do we, as writers, attempt to recreate the physical world down to the minutest detail, or do we accept the limitations of this approach and opt for a more free-flowing style in the interests of our art?

The novel I’m working on at the moment has two major obstacles. One – it’s set in a location I’m largely unfamiliar with, and two – it has as its background an industry I’ve never worked in (although I do have some experience on the periphery). Does this mean I should spend another year or so researching the fine detail, or abandon the project altogether as being beyond the scope of my experience?

The problem with research is that you can never do enough of it. As writers, we have this wonderfully rich storehouse called the imagination, but only our humble and often limited life experience to draw upon to give it authenticity. The advice ‘write about what you know’ implies that you should stick within your own boundaries. If you happen to be a travelling shoe salesman, write about selling shoes. But the advice also extends to that which you can find out about. You may not be a shoe salesman in real life, but you may, for argument’s sake, wish to write about one. No problem. All you need do is find a willing shoe salesman in real life to help you with your research.

The fear of most writers is that they publish a novel, or work of non-fiction, then get letters from angry readers telling them they’ve made an error. The shoe polish you mentioned on page 142 had, in fact, been discontinued in 1936, two years before your main character was selling it door-to-door. You then retreat into semi-seclusion, crestfallen and humiliated, never to write another word again.

Bellow, a writer of considerable talent and imagination, understood the problem of recreating the physical world in fictional form. A novel is, essentially, a work of art. Although its characters inhabit the same sphere as you and I, there is a point of departure, a blurring of the lines, that cannot be reconciled to normal life. If we attempt to recreate exactly this physical world, we are in danger of losing that most vital of assets – insight into what it was we were trying to achieve in the first place.

The only rule in writing is there are no rules. We hear this maxim trotted out at writers retreats and weekend seminars all the time. If there are no rules, we can do what we like. Turn all conventions upside down and indulge our every whim. Actually, it doesn’t work like that. You can’t ignore three hundred years of craftsmanship and expect to produce something people will want to read. The whole thing works from a diligent study of other writers and constant application to the art. If you want to be published, you should at least take the time to see what else is out there lining the bookshelves.

When my novel finally sits in Waterstones shop window, winking seductively at the passer-by and garnering huge media interest, I can only hope for two things. One, that it sells in enormous quantities, and two, that I don’t get letters from apoplectic shoe salesmen in Kent, demanding I fall on my sword. To ensure the latter doesn’t happen, I will indeed check every detail that appears in the final draft and omit anything I’m not sure about. But if I make a mistake …

I’ll leave you with a throwaway line from Graham Greene, my favourite novelist. When asked about the memorable low life characters in his books, he was asked if he had any direct experience. Greene replied ‘No, very little.’

Write what you know? Write whatever you’re drawn to write about and ignore the people who suggest otherwise. That way you might just keep the enthusiasm going to get to


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  1. It was nicely said and very helpful for me at this time. It made me think of the James’s short story “The Real Thing” and also the title of a book The Anxiety of Infuence…these are good thoughts and helpful…thanks for your gift.

  2. It’s a slippery slope attempting to be TOTALLY factual when writing about something you know very little. I climbed that slope when writing my novel which included information on horses, riding, maintaining a horse farm…..I solved the problem (which could have probably been solved with some research which I was in too much of a hurry to do!) by writing AROUND what I didn’t know. Can’t always do that I suppose – research makes more sense. I totally agree with your last two sentences….damn the torpedos – full speed ahead!


    • Yes, I agree, it is a slippery slope. I’ve come to the conclusion that research is a necessary evil if you want to write a convincing novel. On the subject of cats, my old soldier has had his thyroid removed and is currently resting!

      • Ah yes….Sam’s thyroid is “on watch” by his vet – old age often isn’t very pretty for felines or their human companions! Good luck with the research for the novel.

        Pam (and Sammy the Cat)

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