Funny thing, fiction.
I mean, it’s all made up, isn’t it? So I can put anything I like in it, and as long as I can convince my readers that my world is consistent, everything is up for grabs; I can say what I want. Can’t I?
Well, I’m not Jasper Fforde, whose fictional world includes dodos, airships, Neanderthals and Greek gods living in Swindon – his universe is deliberately silly, and mine isn’t intended to be. On the other hand, I’m not Stef Penney, who was – astonishingly – criticized in some quarters for imagining the Canadian wilderness: she is agoraphobic, and was unable to go and experience it for herself. This caused some people to temporarily forget the meaning of the word ‘fiction’ and question her first novel’s authenticity.
Going Back is based, very loosely, on some things which really did happen to me, so is set in as real a world as I can make it. Certain things happen in the story which need, for my own peace of mind as much as the reader’s, to be plausible. Some of them are easily verifiable – I remember them clearly enough, and can ask other people about them if my memory is vague. Some of them are clear enough in my head, even if they are entirely made up – Anne’s house in Godalming, for example, is just an identikit English suburban house; it doesn’t need to be based on a real place; the picture I have of it in my mind’s eye is more than enough for it to pass the test of verisimilitude.
But there are a few crucial items which need research. Even 10 years ago, when I first wrote the short story which spawned this monster, I’d have found some of this quite difficult. Indeed, there are innocent bystanders out there who suddenly received emails from me, just because I thought they might have been on the same bus as me back in 1978. I asked for memories, but few of them overlapped. In the book, Andrew notices this phenomenon, too:
“I thought about finding someone else who had been on the trip, and asking them, but you weren’t exactly talking to me, and I had no idea where to find anyone but Mark, and he was no help.”
“I didn’t know you had spoken to Mark.”
“I didn’t – we exchanged a couple of emails, but he remembered stuff that had happened to him, and almost none of it related to me, as far as I could see.”
My German village in the story is fictional; if you look for Hohenügel in Google Maps, you won’t find it. If you have a reasonable grasp of German geography, however, you’ll probably be able to work it out (and if you’ve read the original non-fiction piece which started this whole thing off, you’ll be in no doubt). I changed the names because one or two of the less savoury characters in my story are analogues for real people who – presumably – did real jobs in a real place back in 1978. Like any respectable fiction writer, I want my characters to exist in their own universe, not to overlap in any way with someone real – let’s face it, someone who might sue.
But my fictional village exists in a real world – it is, in 1978, right on the border with East Germany, and a casual remark from one of my email correspondents all those years ago about going into East Germany illegaly on the back of a motorbike led to a pivotal scene in Going Back.
When I wrote it, it was with the idea that I would go back at some point and fill in the blanks – figure out how it might have been possible for someone to cross that border on a motorbike without weeks of meticulous pre-planning. I lived much closer to Germany then than I do now, and I thought it would be a matter of one day going back (hah!) to visit the area, asking a few questions, visiting the border museums and adjusting my story to suit.
Now, of course, just popping over to Germany is pretty much out of the question. So I rely on research. Which, unsurprisingly, is much easier now than it was. Indeed, thanks to Google and Google Translate, I have found all manner of relevant details, including this page which, although it’s in German, does give me just enough to rewrite that section, which has worried me since I first thought of it, and make it plausible.
No, I didn’t go there – then or now. No, I didn’t even leave my own chair to find out what I needed to know. And I’m sure that in some important way or other, my fictional version will not quite stack up with the way it really was if you lived on that border at that time in history. But it will make sense in my fictional world, and that. really, should be enough.
Now, enough blogging about it – I really should go and, you know, rewrite it.