Facts, fiction & the New Scientist

Among the many joys of meeting fellow writers is the discovery of yet another fan of the New Scientist magazine who, like me, finds inspiration for fiction from its tantalizing summaries of the latest discoveries at the very edges of human knowledge.

Week-by-week we lap up articulate rejoinders to the myriad sceptics of scientific method, and wonder at remarkable revelations about our scarily breakable natural world. It is a lifeline of rationality in this supposedly post-truth era.

According to my first editor, being a fan of the New Scientist isn’t uncommon among writers for young people. She didn’t just mean Science Fiction writers. Apparently, NS fans include authors working across the whole spectrum of genres.

Which rather begs the question, if we’re so keen on scientific truth, why are we wedded to lying, AKA creating fictional worlds?

At some other time – when I’ve organised my work-life balance rather better than it is now – I’d love to ask fellow New Scientist reader/writers for their take on this apparent contradiction. I’d also be fascinated to read your views on the subject if you felt inclined to share them.

In the meantime, this from New Scientist caught my eye.

A special issue about knowledge (issue no. 3119) addressed ‘the biggest questions about facts, truth, lies and belief’. Among its many revelations was this: ‘Brain-imaging studies show that when we answer trivia questions or look at blurry images designed to pique curiosity, areas associated with our response to food and sex light up. That suggests we treat knowledge as a similar primary reward.’

Knowledge, it seems, can be addictive.

For me, this surprising fact prompted an immediate question: are writers who love the New Scientist likely to be happier when writing stories that require plenty of factual research, rather than the sort of stories which rely more on inner explorations of the imagination and memory? And if that’s true, is that why I’m still hankering after the kind of in-depth historical research I did for my debut novel, rather than knuckling down to finish Book 2?

In the serendipitous way of these things, this topic promptly popped up again when author Kathryn Evans of MORE OF ME fame posted a fascinating blog about Second Book Syndrome over on Notes from the Slushpile, which in turn encouraged lots of interesting comments.


The discussion of this phenomenon reminded me of something I’d heard David Almond talking about several times: he called it, ‘the freedom of knowing your limitations.’ That is – to paraphrase – finding the setting or subject which will define you as a writer, and weaving the threads of each story around this central creative core.

But how can we find that core without spending years exploring dead-ends?

In this regard, the New Scientist had some helpful words too.

As Anil Ananthaswamy put it, the question ‘Who am I?’ has resonated since antiquity. Science and philosophy distinguish between a ‘phenomenal self’ – through which we experience ourselves as distinct bodily entities living in time and space – and the ‘epistemic self’ which is capable of observing, understanding and modulating our motivations and behaviour.

Such a duality in perception is, of course, familiar territory to the fiction writer. Our characters are endlessly going on inner and outer journeys towards greater self-knowledge. Logically, then, this process ought to be able to help us find our own creative cores, too.

For some writers, no doubt, it is easy: guided by instinct, you just get on with it. But if, like me, you’re still wondering what it is that is truly worthwhile writing about, a good hard look at ourselves (rather than the fickle marketplace or how well an earlier work sold) is probably the best starting place.

If we’re enthralled by family dynamics, that’s what we’ve got to write about. Ditto if it’s the emotional turmoil of first love – even if we might have to wait a while for the YA market to pick up again. But if it is factual research that floats our boat, I guess we have to be true to that too.

Author: Rowena House

ROWENA HOUSE spent years as a foreign correspondent in France, Africa and then again in Europe before turning to fiction. Her debut novel, a First World War coming-of-age quest called THE GOOSE ROAD, is published by Walker Books (2018). Her fascination with the Great War, the trenches, and the appalling artillery battles of the Somme and Verdun began at school when studying the war poets, Wilfred Owen in particular. As an adult, she experienced war first-hand as a Reuter’s reporter in Ethiopia, and saw its terrible impact on civilians. Now settled in the English countryside with her husband and son, she holds a Master’s degree in rural economics and another in creative writing, and mentors fiction writers alongside her journalism and storytelling.

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