Saturday, 15 April 2017

Facts, Fiction & the New Scientist - by Rowena House

Among the many joys of meeting fellow writers is the discovery of yet another fan of the New Scientist magazine who, like me, finds inspiration for fiction from its tantalizing summaries of the latest discoveries at the very edges of human knowledge.
Week-by-week we lap up articulate rejoinders to the myriad sceptics of scientific method, and wonder at remarkable revelations about our scarily breakable natural world. It is a lifeline of rationality in this supposedly post-truth era.
According to my first fiction editor, being a fan of the New Scientist isn’t uncommon among writers for young people. She didn’t just mean Science Fiction writers; apparently our number includes authors working across the whole spectrum of genres. Which rather begs the question: if we’re so keen on scientific truth, why are we also wedded to lying, AKA creating fictional worlds?
At some other time – when I’ve organised my work-life balance rather better than it is now – I’d love to ask fellow New Scientist reader/writers for their take on this apparent contradiction. I’d also be fascinated to read your views on the subject if you felt inclined to share them.
In the meantime, this from New Scientist caught my eye.
In a special feature about knowledge (in issue no. 3119) , the magazine addressed ‘the biggest questions about facts, truth, lies and belief’. Among its many insights was this: ‘Brain-imaging studies show that when we answer trivia questions or look at blurry images designed to pique curiosity, areas associated with our response to food and sex light up. That suggests we treat knowledge as a similar primary reward.’ Knowledge, it seems, can be addictive.
For me, this surprising fact prompted an immediate question: are writers who love the New Scientist likely to be happier when writing stories that require plenty of factual research, rather than the sort of stories which rely more on inner explorations of the imagination and memory? And if so, is that why I’m still hankering after the kind of in-depth historical research I did for my debut novel, rather than knuckling down to finish Book 2?
In the serendipitous way of these things, the topic promptly popped up again when author Kathryn Evans of MORE OF ME fame posted a fascinating blog about Second Book Syndrome over on Notes from the Slushpile, which in turn encouraged lots of interesting comments. Here's the link:
This discussion reminded me of something I’d heard David Almond talking about several times. He called it, ‘the freedom of knowing your limitations.’ That is – to paraphrase – finding a setting or subject that will define you as a writer, and weaving the threads of each story around this central creative core.
This idea appealed to me from the first time I heard it, but how to discover that core without spending years exploring dead-ends remained a conundrum. The New Scientist article on knowledge had some helpful words about this, too.
As Anil Ananthaswamy put it, the question ‘Who am I?’ has resonated since antiquity. Science and philosophy distinguish between a ‘phenomenal self’ – through which we experience ourselves as distinct bodily entities living in time and space – and the ‘epistemic self’ which is capable of observing, understanding and modulating our motivations and behaviour.
Such a duality in perception is, of course, familiar territory to the fiction writer. Our characters are endlessly going on inner and outer journeys towards greater self-knowledge. Logically, then, this process ought to be able to help us find our own creative cores, too.
For some writers, no doubt, it is easy: guided by instinct, they just get on with it. But if, like me, you’re still wondering what it is that is truly worthwhile writing about, a good hard look at ourselves (rather than the fickle marketplace) is probably the best starting point.
If we’re enthralled by family dynamics, that’s what we’ve got to write about. Ditto if it’s the emotional turmoil of first love – even if we might have to wait a while for the YA market to pick up again. But if it is factual research that floats our boat, I guess we have to be true to that in our fiction too.
Rowena House
Twitter: @HouseRowena


Joan Lennon said...

Another New Scientist fan here! For me, it's the geewhizzery of science that I love - I cherry-pick neat ideas from anywhere and enjoy the buzz.

Rowena House said...

There's always at least one, Cor! Really? moment with every issue, isn't there? A cherry-pickers dream!

Philip Davies said...

Thanks, Rowena, and this is interesting. I think I've only recently (after completing the first draft of my third novel) worked out my central creative core. It's a theme that underlies - in different ways - each of the stories in my fantasy trilogy. The issue is broad: destiny, fate, the will of the gods, what we can choose about our lives and what we can't. This is obviously something that fascinates me, and I keep coming back to it. I'm relieved to discover I'm in good company (David Almond) about this!

Rowena House said...

Interesting, Philip. Themes are so important to pin down, aren't they? David Almond explained this idea of freedom within known limitations much more eloquently than I did here. If you google his name & the phrase, I think several articles should pop up if you're interested. I was lucky enough to interview him for Words & Pictures, and grasping this principle is still helping me to focus years later.