This may seem like a very uninteresting fact. But not if you’re writing a book in which your main character is a female heart transplant surgeon. There are 100 surgeons in this field in Australia. Only six are women.
This is the kind of fact that you can’t get from Google. It’s the kind of fact that makes me so glad I went to Sydney last week and was lucky enough to speak to one of those six women. Because, whilst all of the stuff she told me about actually doing a heart transplant was vital, it’s all the small facts that only someone like her knows that will (hopefully!) make my novel all the more authentic.
I knew before I spoke to Dr G that it would be a male dominated field but I had no idea the imbalance would be so pronounced.
As soon as she told me that fact I began to re-imagine the way my main character might operate at work. It would be entirely plausible for her to rarely meet another person of the same gender working in the same field as her over her entire working life. What kind of impact does that have on a person? How does it make them feel? All good questions for my book.
It really made me think about the balance between imagination and experience in writing a book. Write what you know, is advice often given out to new writers. But what is the point in having imagination if you don’t have a chance to use it?
Most of my first drafts are written based purely on imagination. I don’t like to limit myself with the facts too early. But, when it’s time for redrafting, facts can spark the imagination. Like the fact I’ve been talking about in this post. In a subtle way, it will influence my character’s behaviour at work. It has to, because it’s such an uneven gender balance. So I can now start to imagine how to work it into my book.
Most of my favourite books contain a substantial amount of factual material – about the era the book is set in, about the location, about the professions of the characters. But the facts are marbled in so well you don’t even notice that they’re there. That’s because you’re reading about characters who you care about, who you love or hate or both, but most of all you’re reading about characters who you believe in because the writer has taken the time to develop them with the right mix of imagination and research. Let’s hope I get that mix right too.