So far, writing a novel means spending only about 50% of my working hours getting words on the page. The rest of the time I spend (no ,not procrastinating) on shameless self promotion, reading and crucially, on researching.
The reason I have fallen so heavily into research is that in my book, Woman Man science plays an integral to the plot. It’s not a science book, it’s not even sci-fi – it’s probably best described as a literary drama – but there is a proportion of the story that relies on the scientific pursuits of some of the characters. Whilst my own command of physics is basic at best, and some of the science in my book is not even real, it has to sound real. The science has to be feasible and making sure that it reads that way is a tough job. I find myself at a difficult point of interplay between what is real, what is realistic and what is considered to be realism, that I wanted to share.
Real is the facts. Real is that hot air rises, that the earth orbits the sun and that 2+2=4. I found an online dictionary that defined real as ‘not imaginary’. To an author that means not fiction.
But, not everything in fiction is imagined. All fiction has to be framed by some elements of reality for the reader to understand it. For example, if ‘a man walks through a door’, the walking is real and door is real and the man is also real. They are real tools for the imagined act, the act of walking. Therefore it is reasonable for us to label walking through the door as ‘realism’.
Realism is a word that describes things that are likely to happen in real life, without ghosts, aliens, the future or anything like that getting invited to the party. A man walking through the door might be entering or leaving a room or a building. But he would no be walking onto a space ship or, or a dragon’s lair or into another dimension.
Realism is also the name given to a number of movements in art, philosophy literature and other fields and can be explored by using Wikipedia as a starting point.
My understanding of realistic is slightly different and, as with everything on this blog, it’s up for discussion. I understand realistic to mean, within the scene the author has set, it is believable that what is happening would happen. So, if a man walks through a door into a train car and takes a seat between two women, that is realistic. If an Alien walks through a door into the control room of a space ship and vaporises the ship’s captain with his ray gun, that too is realistic. It’s not realism, though, because it’s completely imagined, and not likely to happen in real life.
The world would be a sad place if every book was based in realism. There would be almost no genre fiction of any kind. The magical and absurd are at the core of many styles of literature. They can be magnificent when framed well. When they are framed poorly, we are left with stories that are unrealistic.
If a man walked through a door into a train carriage and vaporised two women with his ray gun that would be unrealistic. Not necessarily wrong to put in a book, or bad writing in the right context, but unrealistic. Because the man is on earth and he’s taking a train, it’s unlikely he would be in possession of a vaporising ray gun. If he has access to such extraordinary technology, would he be hanging out on a train? Or would he be in space, or fighting aliens or doing something more suitable? In the right book, anything is possible, but in an 18th century romance novel it’s tough to argue there’s a place for ray guns.
Did I mention electrified crops?
One of the characters in my book has made a scientific discovery that she believes will change the way crops are farmed in England. Everything about her places her into the category of realism. She is a human, she has a job in a lab, she works for a large pharmaceutical company. My challenge was to decide upon exactly what she discovered. I always consider that my reader will know more about the facts than I do. What could I ‘imagine’ that would not make my reader scoff at my one-and-a-half decade-old high school science? I chose this, which is fascinating. Not only is it factual (real) and scientific, this science never really got off the ground. That gives me the scope to fabricate, exaggerate and pretend, whilst sticking to some basic facts. My insurance policy in all this is my husband. He is is extremely scientific and my first reader. So if sounds like a load of old tosh, or if I get too crazy with the ray guns, I can rely on him to let me know.