Learning From Fiction

Growing up, I read a substantial chunk of Roald Dahl’s output. I liked them not just for the stories, but how he would explain concepts to his young readers. It was through his novels that I learnt why payments of royalties are made, how some fighter jets fired missiles through the propellor, and that finds of certain metals need to be reported to the authorities.

But learning from fiction is in no way restricted to children’s books. Anyone can glean or dispute historical stories from Dan Brown, or learn a little about the law from John Grisham.

A personal favourite is The Day of the Triffids, where a character talks about risk management by using an example from his family farm. It was explained that once in a while, the cows would bunch together and burst through the perimeter fence, yet it was so rare and unpredictable that it was quicker and cheaper to fix breaks as they occurred than to reinforce the whole fence.

And then I read Lee Child giving praise to Frederick Forstyth as The Day of the Jackal turns half-a-century old. The entire novel is almost a textbook for an assassination, such is the level of detail. The hitman isn’t a spiv with limitless resources. We see how he funds his operation and where his weapon and fake documents are obtained.

Yet the reader is never overloaded with lists of data. The key technique is to convey much of the detail via dialogue. At the very beginning, for example, a suspect begins to tell the police about the assassination plot, and the reader learns the details at the same time as the officers.

I feel compelled to leave a caveat here that anything learnt in fiction should always be cross-checked with a non-fiction source. That’s doubly true if you plan to include something educational in your own work.

The Shock of The New.

Even although I’ve had stories published, I’m very keen to keep expanding my horizons. DamyantiWrites made this very point in her recent entry Do You Swim Free?, where she discusses authors who are happy to sit on the well-worn cushions of their comfort zone, rehashing the same ideas for years.

To this end, I’ve joined a Life Writing (LW) class at the University of Dundee. Thus far, the vast majority of my scribing has been about fictional characters in fictional situations, but LW is all about the self: memoirs of a specific event you experienced, an autobiography of your entire life, or a biography of someone else’s.

In last week’s class, we wrote a passage about a recent holiday; in my case a boat trip up the River Forth in Edinburgh. Part of our homework involved rewriting the passage using reference material such as photographs, maps and articles. The next class is on Tuesday, when we’ll be discussing the LW we have enjoyed and/or disliked.

I hope to expand my horizons in other ways too, such as poetry, and the performance type in particular; I intend to come back to that subject in the future. I’ve also written a stage play and I’m kicking about an idea for a screenplay.

There are authors who can carry off taking the same path over and over again. Read almost anything by Agatha Christie and it follows a familiar pattern where everyone ends up in the drawing room while Poirot or Miss Marple whittles them down to reveal the murderer. And I dislike Dan Brown’s style, but looking past that, he is another good example. Historical facts, symbolic minutiae and conspiracies spill out onto every page of every book, and the public lap it up.

I really yearn to pull something unexpected out of the bag. P D James is one author who did just that. For years, she penned detective books, then at the age of 72, wrote the science fiction novel Children of Men. And Roald Dahl is famous for his children’s books, but additionally wrote macabre short stories for adults, and the script for the James Bond film You Only Live Twice. That’s like Cliff Richard releasing a hip-hop album.

To that end, I’ll attempt to wring every possible benefit out of the LW course, and not just from the teaching in class. Being a student allows me into the university library, where I’m writing this, and into the cheap campus bar. And that means it’s easier to take Ernest Hemingway’s slightly dubious advice to, “Write drunk, edit sober.”

But I’ll need to squeeze it all in before December, when the course ends and I’ll lose these privileges.