Ever read something in the news, and thought: “Wow, that would make a brilliant story?”
In these days, now maybe more than ever, other peoples lives surround us. They’re in our phones, on Facebook, on Twitter; we see them on our news, on the One Show, on messageboards, and of course in our every day lives. Barely a tragedy passes in the news without greater depths being added to the victims’ lives with photographs and comments taken from that person’s social media accounts.
Yet now, perhaps more than ever, writers are concerned about the politics of writing from an experience that they themselves don’t have. We’re wary for good reasons: not wanting to get it wrong, for not wanting to hurt people; and yes, there are many good reasons not to appropriate experiences. Writers ask themselves: what do I have “permission” to write about? How can we adopt real-life situations into our fiction, particularly when these situations are not ones we’ve experienced ourselves?
My new novel, Guest, was inspired by the story of Mark Kennedy / Stone, an undercover police officer who spent years infiltrating activist groups. He, and many others like him, lived for years alongside political activists, even having relationships and children with people who didn’t know his true identity.
Equally horrified and intrigued by this story, I started to think about using it into a novel. The ethics of writing about it were a constant concern. These were real things that had happened to real people, and not in the distant past, either. Many of the women who had been hurt by undercover policing were still trying (and still are) to get justice for what they’d been through. I was wary of causing further hurt to people who were already suffering.
At the same time the story was out there, in the public domain, and it fitted so well with a character idea that I already had floating around. I was worried, yes, but the idea had taken a strong hold of me, and I didn’t want to let it go
How should we write about ‘real life’ issues in our fiction? Authors tackle this issue in a whole host of different ways. Julian Barnes’ “Arthur and George”, recently adapted for TV, takes as its starting point the friendship between Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and George Edalji, a vicar’s son. Edalji, who later became a solicitor, was a son of the only family of colour in a completely white village; he faced racism, and was falsely accused in the “Wyrley Outrages”. The Wyrley Outrages, in which farm animals were killed and mutilated, were real, as was Doyle’s interest in the supernatural, written about extensively in the book.
How much of Doyle and Edalji’s friendship ran as Barnes wrote it, or how closely Doyle’s relationships unfolded as Barnes wrote them, is a matter for speculation. Arthur and George is a book that reveals itself to have been extensively and deeply researched, but never commits the crime of showing its research; we always believe we’re reading a novel. Barnes, knowing the world deeply, does an incredibly plausible fictionalization of Doyle and Edalji’s lives.
Good research is key. It’s not reasonable to think that you can write about other times, other experiences, without knowing anything about them.
So, although you can’t possibly expect to live someone else’s life, you can learn from good sources. Verifiable first-hand accounts if you have access to them, good journalism and historical accounts written by experts, if you don’t. Before writing Guest, I followed the Mark Stone / Kennedy case in the papers, read fanzines and articles about undercover policing that were written by the activist community, and read everything that I could find about undercover policing. There are always good sources, and when you’re basing a setting on true events, it’s so important to get the details right. It is these which make your story believable
Another technique that writers use to write in a way that’s “one step removed”. Margaret Atwood has famously said of The Handmaid’s Tale: “I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist.” Attwood placed her characters in a dystopian future that was firmly based on existing events: everything that happened in Gilead, had already happened here on planet Earth.
When The Handmaid’s Tale came out, it was greeted with mixed reviews. One critic called it “a thinly textured dystopia”, another “paranoid poppycock”. Clearly these reviewers didn’t realise that Attwood had only ever borrowed from real events. The Handmaid’s Tale is now revered as a classic, gaining a second life through its TV adaptation and as a rallying point in the resistance against Donald Trump. Fictionalised dystopias can be a powerful allegory, and a way for writers to address contemporary issues – see also Animal Farm and Battlestar Galactica. However, you can’t always be sure that readers will recognise them.
As writers, its part of our job description to create new worlds, to document and write about the world we live in. No single person, or social group, holds the entire world within their understanding. The world is a wider, much more interesting place than that. It’s varied and interesting and has been full of all sorts of stories that go back many years. It’s part of the writer’s task to use those stories, always treating them with the respect they deserve.
SJ Bradley is a writer from Leeds, UK, whose short fiction has been published in the US and UK, including in Litro and Queen Mob’s. She is the organiser of DIY literary social Fictions of Every Kind, director of the Northern Short Story Festival, and an award-winning editor. Her second novel, Guest, is available now from Dead Ink Books . She tweets @bradleybooks.