Wednesday, 12 January 2011


Watsonworksblog 19

In this issue:



Years ago during a school visit I was asked, Can you write about what you’ve not experienced? The question had been asked to another writer who had given a talk the previous week. She had replied firmly, No, you can only truly write about what you are and what has happened to you. Theoretically this would mean that after exhausting biography writers would be advised to take up some other occupation; that, or (good advice, of course) get out there in the world and experience some more.

My own response was in part coloured by the fact that I was also a teacher and an academic; in both instances treasuring the value of other people’s experiences, knowledge and wisdom. Further, as an academic working in the field of cultural and media study, and as a former journalist, I belong to the ‘constructivist school’, meaning that all stories, all texts, are constructs – made-up things based upon the accumulation of events, experience and perceptions, shaped by particular purposes.

News stories are constructs (if not fabrications) in which information is gathered and shaped according to specific expectations. A key process is selection, as relevant for the novelist as for the journalist or the academic writer; and the guiding principle is the same or similar: what you don’t know, you find out.

Something to work on
What the writer needs above all is imagination; but imagination needs kick-starting in order to function. It needs something to work on. Of course if what you are writing about is what you have personally experienced imagination will still want to be on the field of play rather than waiting on the bench. For those preparing to let loose imagination on material which is not drawn from actual personal experience, then the essential helper (in the author narrative) is research.

Just as the reader samples many books for diverse experience so writers scavenge the world of their own and others’ experience; indeed emulating the jackdaw attracted to what glitters and hoarding what it gathers. Writers await the moment when such jewels of experience become, to use a horrid word, ‘marketable’.

Surveillance and substance
The writer, like the artist, watches the world, listens to its big speeches or its trivial chatter; and records. That is the instinctive and unpredictable part of the process, but so far insufficient in itself to drive things on. A vague idea floats about somewhere in the half-conscious. If one is alert, on the look-out, it will connect with other floaters. A story, too early even to be repeated to another mortal soul, begins to tug at the mind, cause a tremor in the fingers.

Time to go out and gather substance. Writer becomes reader with increasingly specific objectives. Yet life-out-of-books is only a start. To cut to the quick, what is both invaluable and often exciting is seeking out and talking to people who have ‘been there’, done it, seen it, felt it, survived it.

The lives of others
The writer borrows real-life evidence from others. In preparing my Spanish Civil War novel The Freedom Tree I put an ad in a national newspaper inviting former veterans of the war to get in touch if they had a mind to talk about their experiences.

The result was research which carried me beyond what books, however comprehensive, could provide. What I learnt in a number of interviews with old British Brigaders was unique to their experience and their vision of that experience.

A simple anecdote, an observation, a way of describing something, became a gem to weave into the author-invented fabric, lending it a sense of authenticity. The patent, as it were, belonged to the speakers recalling (with quite amazing vividness) what had happened to them so long ago; the literary result rested with the skill of the author: a fitting partnership.

Sometimes peripheral, sometimes central
Occasionally a source offers more than vital though peripheral detail. An article in Index on Censorship magazine led me to visit Frances Meacham, a retired nurse in Clacton-on-Sea. She had a wonderful true story of how she had rescued a Czech poet from oblivion.

Ivan Blatny had escaped the wilderness of Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia only to plunge into a wilderness of his own during a rarely-permitted cultural visit to Britain. He chose asylum, was vilified in his own country and ended up a patient in a mental hospital.

The poet became a mute, most of his waking life staring at a blank TV screen – until, that is, Frances heard about his plight and began to visit him.

Slowly she built up trust with Blatny. He began to communicate again, to write again. My novel Ticket to Prague is about Ivan, and it retells Frances Meacham’s resurrection of the poet, only with one major difference: in the book Frances is replaced by Amy Douglas, a teenager almost isolated and troubled in her own life as Blatny, renamed Josef.

It is a story about how friendship between young and old can be mutually beneficial and enriching. A courtcase against her results in Amy being sentenced to a period of social service. She encounters Josef, gaze fixed on his lifeless TV screen.

First base
Like Frances Meacham, Amy turns to books as the medicine for recovery. She reads to Josef and life and meaning return. My correspondence with Frances, and my visit to her in Clacton, enjoying lunch as well as her memories of Ivan, proved precious hours. Of course, that was only the beginning. What I had to do next was take Josef and Amy back to Prague which, at the time of writing, was itself returning to independent life as the Velvet Revolution got under way.

The long trail of research began once more on Charles Bridge crossing the Vltava. There was the smell of roasting chestnuts, the music of strolling players and somewhere at the back of the mind the memory of a simple commemorative plaque on the wall of a small family hotel in Clacton, this recording: IVAN BLATNY FAMOUS CZECHOSLOVAKIAN POET.

Sadly Ivan never got to return home to the plaudits of his liberated people; but Josef did!

Research made Ticket to Prague possible, but I think that what drove the story in to existence was that corny old phenomenon, empathy, the feeling of growing and deepening sympathy and one-ness with the characters and their situation; to the point where the writer is actually living the lives he or she is creating, day by day, month by month.

In this sense, the question asked in school – Can you write about things that have not happened to you? may be more Yes n’ No than one or the other. Unless you can live the life of your characters things can go wrong; but there’s no doubt that the required empathy can always do with an ample helping of research. The one seeks out and directs the other, which in turn provides material for shaping, structuring, livening. In short, research serves to prompt and sharpen mind and imagination.

The only danger is that it could prove a comfort zone where the gathering impedes the creating. What is more likely is that impatience to get writing kicks in before research is complete. It happens with me; a fact I celebrate, because I know from experience that once the story is out of the trap, everything else follows in its wake. Where it doesn’t, there’s time to catch up in the second, third or umpteenth draft.


Related blogs:
Teen Readers: Politics and fiction
(Blog 17, Nov. 2010); Fiction and History (Blog 16, Oct 2010); Tale Power (Blog 11, May 2010); Fiction and News (Blog 10, April 2010); Frames, Codes and Character (Blog 9, March 2010); Props in Storytelling (Blog 8, Feb. 2010); Triggers in Storytelling (Blog 7, Jan.2010). An edited version of these under the provisional title Aspects of Storytelling will be posted on in the spring (2011).


K.G. Melling is an Englishman living in the States whose working life was largely spent in Europe. Below, he offers a view of his adopted country, prompted by the notion expressed on both sides of the Atlantic, that ‘we are all in it together’.

Your comment in Blog 17, "Con-Dems Cuts Coalition would have us believe we’re all in it together" got my attention. It's the same in the US. This is what our politicians want us to believe, when in fact we are not. From my perspective, it's a question of the haves and have nots. The UK and the US are in deep debt and we have just experienced the worst economic crisis in decades. In a nutshell, this was caused by greed and lack of financial market regulation.

Seriously in debt
The US is probably the most capitalistic country on the planet and has serious fiscal problems, not least of which is an enormous deficit. This is a problem in the UK and other countries in Europe and elsewhere. A couple of examples of national debt expressed as a percentage of GDP: UK 10.5%, US 9.5%, France 7.5%, Germany 7.5% on the one hand and Switzerland +2% (no debt!) on the other. Note: the US has a population 5 times greater than the UK with a GDP 7 times greater.

There are many reasons for the above situation in the US, including overspending (governmental and private), lopsided trade agreements, wars, no insight to dubious financial dealings, a decline by design of the middle class over the last 10 years, party politics, and self-serving senators and congressmen.

Middling fortunes
Already during the last decade the middle class, the backbone of the nation, has been decimated. The decline continues. This is the section of the population that is/was mostly in manufacturing industries, significantly contributing to national economic strength and growth. It is this largest sector of the population that suffers most, loses the most and will pay the most when austerity measures bite.

During the last decade, the US has lost 10 million manufacturing jobs and middle class family income has been reduced by 5%. Today, 27% of families are classed as poor (gross income below $22,000). In North Carolina (my own state of some 6 million people) two major industries, textiles and furniture manufacturing, have been devastated. Since 2006, when housing prices were at a peak, average value (based on 72 million homes) has dropped dramatically –a shattering blow to homeowners' equity.

We have 15 million unemployed (official figure 9.8%) and this jumps to 25 million when we add those who have temporarily ceased to look for work. Untold millions are either on short time, or have taken low paying jobs. Forecasts for 2011 suggest 8 to 9% unemployment.

Party bickering
This great country is in decline with little hope of an early recovery. The political scene is a disaster with little expectation of a change for the better. For years our political representatives fight and bicker across the aisle, vote party lines and pass little legislation. A Supreme Court ruling earlier this year allows companies and interest groups to make anonymous and unlimited political contributions to whom they please. Obviously these contributions are used to influence the electorate. The recent mid-term election saw some $3 billion spent by political action groups and others to influence the election outcome.

Targeting the floating voters
There is a large section of the electorate designated as independents. They are not members of either party. This group can be considered as a swing vote and the target for these activities. So-called lobbyists "lobby" congressional members on behalf of companies, associations, large interest groups and others to gain support for their clients. At least to a European, all this doesn't feel right. Is this really government by the people for the people in the sense the phrase was coined so many years ago?

Democrats currently have a majority in the House of Representatives, but not the absolute majority in the Senate (100 members). The house votes on a straight majority. In the Senate there is a procedure requiring a majority of 60 votes in order to pass legislation.

As a result of the mid-term election in November 2010, the Republicans will have gained a sound majority in the House and in the Senate the Democrats will have 5 fewer seats (53); no absolute majority.

This is the situation as Congress reconvenes in 2011. The United States of America was created as a result of compromise between the representatives of the 13 original colonies, when they wrote the constitution. We surely need that spirit now.

Not much if any of the above helps the poor and middle class. But there is a glimmer of hope. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives could not produce acceptable legislation to extend the so-called "Bush tax cuts". These were substantial cuts in income tax across the board, valid until end 2010. The estate tax had also been suspended, and this was also up to the end 2010. There was utter deadlock between the two parties, resulting in a compromise: in exchange for Republican concessions President agreed to a two-year extension – still including the rich with an income in excess of $250,000 p.a.(against his party's line and his own conviction).

The inheritance tax will be reintroduced in 2011 at 35% above $5 million, replacing the original inheritance tax of 55% above $1 million. The 6.2% Social Security tax (paid by employees) will be reduced to 4.2% for 2011, $1000 p.a. for an average family. Federal unemployment benefits will be extended by 13 months (a further 2 million unemployed were to lose their benefits).

Modest presidential achievement
Also included are a maintaining of the dependent allowance of $1000 p.a. and tax breaks for parents with children studying at university. Also extended are refunds to householders for installing energy efficient appliances and other related items. Grants to companies involved in renewable energy research and development will receive financial assistance.

In all, the bill signed by the President, will cost $858 billion, none of which is financially secured (adding to the deficit). The US approach is to get the economy growing strongly prior to introducing austerity measures aimed at reducing the deficit, and there is political consensus for this policy. A bipartisan 18 member "Deficit Committee", appointed by the President, recently made its recommendations known. This report, with sweeping spending cuts, will most likely be one of the guidelines for future debate.

All in all President Obama got approaching 90% of what he wanted and the Republicans got what they wanted. However, some members on both sides of the Senate and House voted against the bill for various reasons. Voting in the Senate was 81 for and 19 against, and in the House 234 for and 188 against, a vote to be regarded as one for the country and the people, especially the middle class and the poor.

Hope for 2011
Compromise at last. But will it last? In 1994 President Bill Clinton was in exactly in the same situation regarding the composition of Congress. It turned out to be a successful tenure, with legislation being enacted on the basis of compromise between the President and the Republicans. And at the end of his term as President, he left a balanced budget in place. There is a chance for President Obama and thus the entire country, but don't hold your breath.

Thanks, Ken!


Hello Jim,
I don't usually respond to your blog, but I agree on the importance of history, and am a Barbara Kingsolver enthusiast [See Tony Williams' review in Blog 18]. The Poisonwood Bible is superb and a 'must read'. I have not read the second book as it has not yet appeared in the charity shops! However her other, maybe slighter, books are all worth reading, and she enlightens one about the life and feelings of native Americans and other rural folk in the USA who do not have the lavish lifestyle we see on the TV etc. Chris Wigzell.

On the themes of research or ‘we’re all in it together’ – comments long or short would be welcome. Blog 20 will be in preparation early February.