by Steve Cole
Here’s a confession. I rarely read contemporary fiction. As a professional novel editor as well as a writer, it’s an instinct to make changes in the margin as I go – which is as frustrating as it is pointless. So, my reading material tends to be nonfiction. Not a studying of dry facts, but autobiographies, social histories, uncovering personalities shaped by the marching of tumultuous years – just as we all are. A brief glance at social media reminds us that the gap between fiction and nonfiction has never been tinier, or potentially harmful.
So, reading round, assessing evidence, is crucial in all we do.
As a writer I enjoy research. For a start it’s a way of kidding yourself you’re working when really, you’re just reading and watching and visiting and making notes now and then. And yet this process is an essential part of conjuring a world for a reader; you have to be able to see it clearly in your head. Ninety percent of your research may not end up on the page, but it’s informing the vision of the world you create: a fictional world shored up by fact. Or at least, what is perceived as fact.
Any student of History knows that first-hand accounts of events are the most reliable – except when they are unreliable. I was reminded of this while researching the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451 AD for my Doctor Who novel Combat Magicks; this epic clash between Atilla the Hun and the forces of Rome divides contemporary historians who, from contemporary evidence, can’t agree on whether it was a Roman victory or stalemate, how many were fighting or even exactly where the Catalaunian Plains are.
Such grey areas of the long past are fine for giving a Time Lord and her friends room to play in history, but when telling a contemporary story the issue of bias becomes more significant.
I found this while writing my newly published short novel World Burn Down, set in the Amazon rainforest during the particularly terrible wildfires that raged in 2019 (and which still burn on against all sense and hope). One of the characters, Davi, was inspired by a true-life account of an outcast from an indigenous tribe, abandoned to die because his disabilities made him a burden unable to contribute to the community. At first I was shocked. Then I realised that the account was told by Christian missionaries who had a pointed purpose in colouring the case: they had rescued this child and used it as justification to bring Christianity to these ‘uncivilised’ peoples. Anthropologists have in fact found little evidence to support the missionaries’ claims, and remind us that judging based on our own intricate cultural framework is not helpful for a small tribe in isolation from the wider world, already under threat from loss of habitat and other pressures.
As a result I present Davi as a protagonist, alongside a city-bred Brazilian boy, in a world that is burning down. That statement is not bias or opinion. The Amazon is the most biodiverse ecosystem on land. And the fires were so extreme they could be seen from space.
But stories are what bind facts, and research, into larger life. So in World Burn Down, as with Tin Boy – my book on the impact of tin mining in Indonesia – I set fiction against a harrowing factual backdrop and invite readers to consider the issues motivating events and outcomes for themselves.
I hope that they grow angry, and fight for change. Ultimately, all history is the result of reality impacting on people’s imaginations. Let’s hope that future historians agree that we made changes for the better.
Books by Steve Cole mentioned above:
World Burn Down published by Barrington Stoke on 1st October 2020
Tin Boy published by Barrington Stoke on 15th September 2019
Doctor Who: Combat Magicks published by BBC Books 22nd November 2018
Any opinions expressed may not truly reflect those of the FCBG