I’m currently reading Lawrence Block’s Spider Spin Me A Web – A Handbook For Fiction Writers. Chapter 20 is called Reporters and Imaginers.
Block’s interest in the two types of writers was raised by a colleague at a literary conference, Arno Karlen who writes largely non–fiction. He gave a lecture in which he postulated that there’s often a very thin line between fiction and non–fiction. He cites Hemingway, James Baldwin and Norman Mailer as examples of reporters in the guise of novelists.
This made Block wonder about how he wrote things. How much was he using experiences and people that he’d known as inspiration, and how much came purely from his imagination? He gives several amusing examples of how he found it easier sometimes to write convincingly about people and places that he didn’t know than to create an accurate impression of those that he was acquainted with.
I thought about my writing and decided that I use a mix of autobiographical experiences and made-up stuff. I definitely favour factual details, though this is done more in a write what you know about way. For instance, I give several of the characters in my novel physical and mental ailments that I’ve had—gout, Reynaud’s syndrome (cold feet), depression and Aspergillosis—a fungal infection of the lungs.
Gout is one of the few ailments that one gets no sympathy for having—it’s always assumed that it’s your fault, through rich eating or drinking too much port and brandy. In fact, it’s more of an inherited condition (my grandfather had it) and is a form of arthritis. I’ve suffered various pains, including stabbing, being shot, poisoned (Black Widow) and broken bones, but nothing hurt as much as gout. Thankfully, I’ve only been afflicted a few times, and not for twenty years, but at the time it felt like my big toe joint was clamped in a vice that was being hit with a club hammer and heated by a blowtorch.
Ah well, it’s all grist to the mill, and I passed my agony onto the forensic pathologist in my novel, and her condition provided a turning point in the plot.
The Gout by James Gillray, 1799
The pitfall of being a Reporter style of writer is that one could come across as giving a lecture if too much detail is given. Then again, an Imaginer really needs to describe their creation in a feasible and convincing way.
What sort of writer are you – a Reporter or Imaginer?