Research and fiction

Has anyone here been caught by the publication of new research that played havoc with a fictional work in progress?

It hasn’t quite happened to me because I’m still in the very early stages of my novel and the pieces aren’t yet tightly linked. However I’ve been following the results of a major research project related to a key part of my story, and I’m getting concerned that they are leading away from the direction my plot wants to take.

This is historical fiction and the research is archeological. In a way it doesn’t matter; fiction is fiction after all. But I’d like to as true to the facts as I can, so I suppose my question comes down to how long do I wait for the facts to be known?



I think the answer is that it very much depends. How much do you want your story to rely for its power on its closeness to the results of real archeological research? Do you want the reader to think “Ah, now I understand what really happened”?

There are lots of examples of successful historical fiction that do so depend; there are others that succeed despite adopting a “looser” approach to the facts because they have other qualities attractive to readers. No hard and fast rule.

Of course there could be a problem if your story says one thing and by the time it’s on the shelves widely known facts point to something directly contradictory. But there’s also another way through. Something I’ve recently written involves a very current event; the event took a path I didn’t really expect but with a little thought it was possible to embody the new direction in the story quite easily. In fact it made it better. A little bending and blurring may do no harm. Some “facts” are never known and remain theories, though, since you’re still in the early stages, perhaps submitting for publication (if that’s what you want to do) before the new information has been tested may be a risk not worth taking .

My two groats :wink: worth.

Write your story, but plan for quick revisions.


Ever hear of the Bush administration? Your plight never seems to bother them.

[size=75]Did I just type that? It must be my pocket book screaming form the 700+BILLION dollars that was just stolen from “We the People”[/size]

I have a political situation in the novel I’m working on that is portrayed as being up the air (legalization of slot machines in Maryland) but will most likely be decided by the time the novel is finished. In this case, it’s not a problem because the novel is set in a fixed time period and it’s a “pre-vote” time period. My only concern is that this will be perceived as too topical, when this issue is not really the main thrust of the novel–it does, however, serve as a motivating factor for some of the characters.

My first novel was about Y2K. I had no idea what I was working on when I started, but it turned out to be a novel, and like many of my books, it’s not really about what it’s about – it was asking about the role of money in our lives, and the questioning the dangers of a “bubble economy”. In theory, I should feel vindicated, because the selfsame issues have come up to bite us in the bum, but a) there’s really no comfort in saying “I told you so” and b) basing a story on that topic gave the book the shelf life of yoghurt in the sun.

A Canadian publisher was interested in it, but because of its time-sensitivity, they would have had to leapfrog my book into their production schedule and make all their money back on it within the year before the topic was defunct. Naturally, they passed, and thus began my adventures in self-publishing.

If it’s possible that the topical rug is going to get yanked from under your feet, I’d question investing a year (or however long you take to write a book) if you might find yourself at the end of the process with something you can’t shift. I guess it depends on your intentions – whether you’re looking to sell the novel or not.

I just wrote a novel about climate change, so I should really shut up and take my own advice (though I figured this one’s going to be with us for longer than a year). And I firmly believe that thoughts about selling the thing don’t belong in the creative process. I’m just sharing my perspective: it’s a shame when all your efforts and a good story get taken down by being tied to a dead issue.

Most readers will have no idea what the state of slot machines in Maryland might be. Unlike Y2K or climate change, it’s just not an issue that’s going to register with anyone outside the state. So I’d say not to worry, and treat the slot machines like you would an entirely fictional political issue.


I agree with Katherine.

There’s also the point that ideally for longevity a topical novel shouldn’t in fact be “about” the current topic it may say it’s about. Ideally, it should really be “about” one or more of the true fundamentals - revenge, ambition, a mother’s love, wayward passion, family relationships, for example.


Yet there’s the other side of that same coin. I wrote a novel in which an essential element was whether the occupants of separate cars were aware of each other’s location. In my story, they were not/could not have been. An editor – one of several who rejected the ms – pointed out that they could simply have called each other; after all, cell phones were in existence at the time. My answer, to no avail, was that in the region where the novel was set, THERE WERE NO CELL TOWERS AT THE TIME. In fact, it’s been an item in the local press that only in the past week has cell phone service been available in that region at all.


Yep, mobiles are an absolute bummer. So is the Internet. There are whole swathes of mainstream fiction from previous times which depend on characters not knowing about events elsewhere and which could not be credibly plotted nowadays, thanks to both inventions.


(Conversely, of course they also make it possible to ignite other plots that might not have been possible before…)

And now the peace and tranquility of that area is no more. My favorite vacation areas either have no cell reception or phones are banned. Oh the peace of not having to hear those disgusting pop song ringtones.

Well thanks people… I think. Fortunately I didn’t really expect a definitive answer :laughing:

Current technological innovation isn’t an issue for my story, which happens 2nd and 1st centuries BC. OTOH some of the first scenes that came to life in my mind depend on the absence of strong artificial light. Anyone remember Asimov’s “Nightfall”?

I’ve reckoned on about 3 years to complete this book, and I haven’t yet given much thought to submitting anything for consideration. It’s a story I’ve lived with for 25 years, growing out of research work being done by a friend who died 5 years ago. I don’t know for sure that I can write the book, but at this stage I definitely want to finish it as a kind of gift to my friend as well as because I’m entranced by my story. Rephrase, I definitely want to finish it well, because I want to read it and as a kind of gift to my friend.

Guess I just keep working and stay vague for as long as possible about questions that the archeologists might answer.

Thanks again.


There’s a phrase that comes to mind, from probably a Tom Clancy or Bourne movie/Book - Deniable Plausibility.

Archaeology, by its very nature, is an averaging and a guessing game. Most discoveries contain phrases such as “tend to”, and “appear to be”. It is a difficult sciense, because in the end you cannot dig up every bit of ground in every site for a culture, or even find every places where a certain culture did exist.

A dig can tell you that middens were found in a village, and that there was no evidence that the inhabitants ever ate deer. Chances are they are right - but they may just have missed that one midden in which they buried all of the deer bones, because the deer was a venerated and cultic creature.

I’m working on historical fiction set in the sub roman era. Theories are constantly being revised. I just pick what seems to fit best for my understanding of what I want - I do my best to beware anachronisms, and to get my facts right, but if people disagree about a detail, then perhaps it’s because both are right - in different places, or different families.

If I think it’s reasonable to stick with my guns, or with the thoughts of someone in the field who knows far more than me, but has now been proven wrong on a small point, then that’s what I do. If one archaeologist believed it at some time, it must be at least credible to most people out there.

I think you can only do so much, just so long as you believe it yourself when you write - in the end the truth is greater than the facts, and I think the truth of a tale is more important.


I must admit, though, that that has not stopped me from discovering exactly which hills sat below the constellation of Orion (then known as Lleu Long Arm) at 10 in the evening on the 6th of September 599 from a vantage point just before the Moorfoot Hills south of Edinburgh. (It was a little to the West of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, and a small scattering of meteors appeared from his arm between 10 and 12 that night).

Hi Sunny. I’ve just finished reading T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King”. You might find White is a kindred spirit :slight_smile:

I’m guessing that “sub roman” means just after the collapse of the Roman empire? Is that right? I haven’t heard the term before.


Hi Ghoti,

Yes, that’s right. Sub-roman is the period between when the romans left the UK and when the Angles, Jutes etc took a firm hold from the Britto-Roman population. So it’s from around 450 to 650, give or take. A lot of the stuff I’ve read that was written recently about the period uses “sub-roman” because the term ‘dark ages’ is a bit of a misnomer.

That’s actually what interested me in the period in the first place. I was taught at school: “500-1000AD - we don’t know what happened then”. When I realised how much actually is known I was hooked.

It’s great for fiction as well - I’m basing my book on a semi historical poem that people have only been trying to translate into English for the last 150 years, with mixed results at times - most say it’s a series of elegies for 75 odd ancient welsh warriors - though some disagree. One particular victorian scholar says its a garbled Assyrian account of a chess match. Some people say that a certain warrior in the poem held a spear, and others say, “No, that line says his hair was blond”, and still others say “No, he was tall.” So I end up with a tall blonde warrior holding a spear.

I read T.H. White long ago, and have been meaning to read it again, but now I’m concentrating on writing I fear that it will affect me too much. Some people believe the last argument they hear. I write like the last person I have read.

I’ve been on a strict diet of ancient welsh poems for a while now, but they only wrote so many, and the book’s end seems to be sitting on the other end of a travelator. So, on second thoughts, I may very well have to re-read “The Once and Future King” - I can’t always be a slave to the book.


Until the ink dries on your manuscript.

Once you are done then its done. If something happens later then that is after the fact and beyond your control. A story that is never told is not a story it is just a dream…

A story that is never told… Thanks Wok, that’s scaring me into action.

Turns out that the archeological result that upset my plotting is actually a speculation, which is at least as much the realm of fiction as of archeology. Except that I assume the archeologists have more information than they’ve been able to publish, which leads to my next question:

Are there protocols or conventions for a fiction writer approaching researchers for information or verification? I don’t want to waste anyone’s time so I’m trying to learn as much as I can from published information, but this seems to be an active area of research and I think I could only stay current if I was involved in it. Some of the hot questions do affect my story, and an indication of how people are trying to answer them would be helpful. Any suggestions for the best way to ask for it?

Thanks again,


Just ask, as you have done here. They can only say “No”.

To elaborate: it’s remarkable but true how willing many* experts are to deploy and explain their knowledge to the interested, even when it cannot really benefit them (other than, perhaps, the slim possibility - to them - of an acknowledgement at the back of your future book).

*“Many experts”, but not all. That’s why you need persistence and a thickish skin, alongside the charm and sensitivity and relentless interest. :slight_smile:

Agree with Hugh, and would add only this:

Be as certain as you can that the “expert” does actually know what s/he is talking about. Every journalist has horror stories about “witnesses” and “officials” whose information turns out useless, or worse.

Also determine that the expert is in a position to give reliable answers. That doesn’t mean guaranteed accurate answers; it only means answers which are realistic, and which you can present that way if things go awry somewhere down the road.

Again, persistence and a thick skin.


Two possible approaches:

(1) Dear Dr. Expert: I’m working on a book/article/story about [topic], and found your paper/interview in [source] very interesting and helpful. Would it be possible for me to take [small amount] of your time to ask a few more specific questions about this work?

(2) Dear University Communications Person: I’m working on a book/article/story about [topic], and have learned that the [program name] at Enormous University is one of the most respected in this field. Can you suggest a good contact person in this program who might be able to answer a few questions about this area?

To get the most out of interviews with experts:

  • Collect as much information as possible from published sources first. Reading published sources will help you know who the experts are and what some of the arguments are about. Being prepared will allow you to make the best use of your time with the expert, and will show the expert that you aren’t wasting his time. It will also make for a more interesting conversation.

(As a corollary to this, find a good reference library near you, and get a librarian to show you how to find things in the technical literature. The consumer internet contains only a small fraction of what’s out there.)

  • In person interviews are best, because they give you a sense of the person and their workplace. You never know what details will be useful. But phone and even email interviews are still better than nothing.

  • Come prepared with questions. Open-ended questions are good, but also make sure to nail down any specific facts that you need.

  • Ask the expert for referrals to other experts and/or other materials.

  • Keep your promises. Whether you promise to email a copy of an article, introduce the expert to someone, or send a copy of the book, do it. That will make it much easier if you need to go back for additional information. The corollary, of course, is to not make promises you can’t (or don’t plan to) keep.

Hope this helps,