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.
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
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
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
Tin Boy published by Barrington Stoke on 15th
Doctor Who: Combat Magicks published by BBC Books 22nd
Any opinions expressed may not truly reflect those of the